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Digital marketing vs. affiliate marketing: which one’s better?

16 min

Many people start an online business with several questions in mind. Depending on their business model, idea, and target audience, one such question is digital marketing vs affiliate marketing — what are their relationship and differences?

These two are popular marketing strategies brands use to reach their audience and generate revenue. Today’s guide will delve into the core concepts of each and their fundamental distinctions and relationships. This will empower you to make an informed choice as you start and scale your online business.

What is digital marketing?

Digital marketing refers to all marketing forms that engage with customers via digital channels. This includes online marketing strategies like search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, social media marketing, email marketing, and content marketing.

With this type of marketing, you can reach a large audience, target specific demographics, and track the results of your campaigns easily. This makes digital marketing a relatively cost-effective way to drive leads and conversions.

Developing a digital marketing strategy that combines various digital channels will help you achieve significant business results.

Digital marketing channels

Around 46 percent of shoppers begin their buying journey online. That includes shoppers who research products online before visiting a physical store. This shows customer journeys have gone digital.

You can use multiple digital marketing channels to target your prospects at different customer touchpoints. Let’s look at some of the main channels.

1. PPC

Pay-per-click advertising (PPC) involves any paid digital advertising approach on digital channels. Typically, it refers to ads run for search engine marketing, but it can also include ads run on social media platforms (Social PPC).

With PPC, online advertisers bid for visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs). The advertisers pay a fee to the search engine each time someone clicks on their ad.

Here’s how it works:

Advertisers bid on keywords they think their target audience will likely search for. When someone searches for a keyword on a search engine, it shows a list of ads relevant to the search query, as shown below.

The displayed ads have the highest bids and quality scores for the keyword “pet supplies UK.” The quality score measures how relevant and useful the ad is to the search query.

The types of paid search ads you run depend on your products and services, as well as the platform on which you want to be visible. Most businesses run shopping ads, display ads, and YouTube ads as part of their Google Ads campaigns. But you may also run similar campaigns with Bing ads.

When used appropriately, PPC can be an effective paid search strategy. Though cost-intensive, paid media campaigns are useful when you need immediate results. It can also help validate your target keywords for SEO campaigns.

That is, you could run paid campaigns to see the money keywords generating your business the most revenue. You can then initiate SEO campaigns to rank for those keywords organically. That’s why combining PPC with SEO is advisable for a more sustainable digital marketing strategy.

2. SEO

Search engine optimization, or SEO, focuses on improving organic search engine rankings to build awareness, capture demand, and generate qualified traffic.

An SEO-optimized website has a higher chance of ranking when someone searches for a specific query.

But to succeed at organic search rankings, you must understand certain SEO concepts, including keyword research, topic clusters, backlinks, and trust signals. These elements signify your brand’s experience, expertise, authority, and trust (EEAT), thereby affecting your rankings on search engines.

It’s also the same concepts that make SEO a complicated yet powerful digital marketing channel.

As you build your website’s credibility and overall reputation, SEO’s impact compounds, allowing you to generate more leads and sales while lowering customer acquisition costs. This is unlike other digital marketing strategies like PPC, which can get more expensive with time.

We recommend checking out our guide on SEO techniques for more details.

3. Email marketing

Email marketing lets you connect with targeted customers via email. It’s one of the digital marketing channels with the highest ROI. This hyper-personalized approach creates a sense of exclusivity and value to subscribers, making them more inclined to patronize you. It’s also effective for building lasting relationships with customers.

The email digital channel allows you to segment your audience into groups based on your specific interests. You can group your list based on their geographic location, for instance. Meanwhile, ecommerce stores can group their audiences based on their purchase history.

The ability to segment your list is one of the reasons behind the effectiveness of email marketing. It lets you personalize your interactions to drive traffic, increase sales, and foster customer loyalty.

The best email marketing software will also help you automate email campaigns. This is really essential when scaling your marketing.

4. Social media marketing

Like email marketing, social media platforms are a critical digital marketing channel for building customer relationships. Social media marketing keeps you more in tune with your audience’s thoughts and feelings. It establishes a platform for constructive dialogue between your brand and potential customers.

Each social platform works differently, with its users having certain expectations of the types of content and topics to consume on that specific platform.

For instance, Instagram and TikTok are visually heavy social platforms; therefore, users expect to see images, videos, and UGC. That’s why even most of our IG content features stunning visuals.

Meanwhile, text-based content is more common on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn.

You must understand what’s appealing and relevant to users on various platforms to succeed in social media marketing. By doing this, you foster a firm, positive relationship, making your audience more receptive to social selling in the future.

5. Content marketing

Content marketing involves the strategic planning, creation, publication, and distribution of different marketing content types to attract and educate your target audience. We use this approach at GetResponse to produce educational guides, blog posts, and webinars.

Unlike PPC ads, which focus on active selling for a particular keyword, content marketing allows you to deliver value and establish trust as you engage with your audience. It facilitates business growth in a healthy way, thus increasing the chances of turning potential customers into brand advocates.

An efficient content marketing strategy complements other digital marketing channels. It also supports your overall marketing, guiding your customers from the awareness stage to the action stage.

What is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a performance-based marketing where third parties, like entrepreneurs, influencers, bloggers, and publishers, get paid commissions for promoting a brand.

These third parties — affiliates — promote a brand’s products through their websites, blogs, emails, or social media pages. Then, they earn a commission from the brand’s company when a person clicks through and purchases.

All parties, i.e., affiliates, sellers, and customers, benefit from affiliate marketing. How?

  • Sellers own products for sale and pay commissions to affiliates who help sell those products.
  • Affiliates promote the seller’s products to their audience to buy through affiliate links. If they buy, the affiliate earns commissions on each sale.
  • Customers buy a product after clicking the affiliate’s tracking link but don’t pay extra when they do this. In some cases, they even get a discount.

Most affiliate programs will pay you for sales. Our very own affiliate program is a good example of this. If you sign up for our affiliate program, we’ll pay you a recurring 33% commission every month. Not to brag or anything, but this is one of the best commissions in the industry. You can also opt for a bounty of $100 upfront commission.

You can learn more about our affiliate program here.

You can also sign up for other affiliate programs that will pay you commissions for website visits, leads, app downloads, or sending free trial users to their products.

Ultimately, affiliate marketers can earn money without the high start-up costs of owning or managing their products, making this a great business model.

Let’s now delve into the components of affiliate marketing and the crucial tips that can help you earn as an affiliate.

Components of affiliate marketing

Every successful affiliate marketing program has three main components.

1. Merchants/Retailers: Companies or individuals that sell products or services. They work with affiliates to promote their products or services and give them a commission on sales. Examples of affiliate merchants are GetResponse, Amazon & Puma.

2. Affiliates: People or websites that promote merchants’ products or services in exchange for a commission. They can use various methods to promote products, such as social media, blogging, and email marketing.

The affiliate merchants may sometimes dictate the channels and even types of campaigns that affiliate marketers can utilize. For example, some merchants do not allow their affiliates to run PPC campaigns or bid for their branded keywords. This will influence your affiliate marketing strategy.

Also, some countries legally require affiliates to disclose they earn commissions on sales made via their affiliate links. Here’s what an affiliate disclosure looks like.

It’s advisable to include affiliate disclaimers whenever you’re promoting affiliate products to be on the safe side.

3. Customers: People who purchase products or services via affiliate marketing promotions.

Some brands do not run their own affiliate programs. Instead, they partner with an affiliate network or marketplace. This can be an additional component.

Affiliate marketplaces connect affiliates with merchants, giving them access to some of the best affiliate programs online.

They provide tracking links and tools to help affiliates track the performance of their promotions and earn commissions. Examples of affiliate networks are CJ Affiliate, ShareASale, Amazon Associates, and more.

Keep in mind an affiliate network is different from an affiliate program. The network acts as a middleman, offering you (the affiliate) access to thousands of different programs owned by different merchants. In contrast, an affiliate program typically involves a merchant-affiliate relationship with a single brand.

So, while some affiliate programs like eBay Partner Network might look like affiliate networks at first, your relationship as an affiliate is with the marketplace brand and not eBay sellers.

Types of affiliate marketing

At a high level, an affiliate marketer is closely associated with a seller’s brand. But are they experts in the niche they promote, or are they just sticking their heads out for the money?

None of these affiliate marketer types are bad. And it’s possible to engage in both types of affiliate marketing as you make money online. However, understanding the different types of affiliate marketing helps you determine the kind of affiliate you want to be.

1. Related affiliate marketing

In related affiliate marketing, you raise awareness for products and services related to your niche and not because you’ve used them yourself. For example, if you have a website about gardening, you might promote gardening products or services as an affiliate.

As a related affiliate marketer, you can promote these products on several digital platforms through blogging, YouTube, TikTok, or other channels — as long as you have some influence on them.

The downside of related affiliate marketing is that it carries the risk of pushing something you have never tried before. Users would feel betrayed if they had a negative experience with your promoted product.

One bad reputation can cause your audience to lose the trust you worked so hard to build. Ultimately, if your audience doesn’t trust you, you’ll find it difficult to build a sustainable affiliate marketing business.

2. Unattached affiliate marketing

The unattached affiliate marketing type simply means the marketer is “unattached.” In other words, they have zero expertise or product experience in the niche they’re promoting.

The affiliates involved in this type of affiliate marketing usually don’t have significant digital influence, nor do they have an interest in fostering relationships with niche audiences. Instead, they run pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns on search engines or social media paid ads with the affiliate link, hoping people click on it, buy the product, and they’ll earn a commission.

If you’re hesitant or lack the time to create a blog or website, you’ll find unattached affiliate marketing appealing. It does not require building a reputation or establishing trust within an online community.

3. Involved affiliate marketing

Involved affiliate marketing involves marketers who are deeply connected to a brand or product. This is usually because the affiliate has used or experienced the product or service and can share their unbiased experience.

Their audience uses these experiences as trusted sources of information. However, their reputation depends on whether the product delivers on its promise or not.

While the audience makes buying decisions based on trusted sources of information, the involved affiliate marketer’s reputation is still at risk. Why? Their audience may lose trust if a product purchased through the affiliate’s link doesn’t meet their expectations.

To be an involved affiliate marketer that people trust, you’ll need to build your credibility online. Though it might take time, you’ll grow your influence, which is necessary for a sustainable affiliate marketing hustle.

How can you earn as an affiliate?

The process of earning as an affiliate is straightforward.

But affiliate marketing income can go anywhere from a few hundred bucks in a few months to six figures a year. This mostly depends on factors like niche, product selection, digital influence, and marketing efforts.

Many affiliate marketers earn a commission of between 5% and 35%. However, affiliates may earn smaller commissions for high-demand products because the turnover for that product category is high.

Some sales result in one-time payments, but you can join an affiliate program with recurring payments. According to Glassdoor, the average salary is  £43,292 per year, based on 289 salaries submitted to the platform in the United Kingdom.

That said, how can you earn as an affiliate? As mentioned earlier, it’s possible to earn rewards on products or services that aren’t sales. Here are five common ways affiliates earn money:

  1. Pay per sale: This is the most common payout model where you earn a commission per sale made.
  2. Pay per install: For this affiliate program, you’re paid a commission for every install generated from your website traffic. Apps or software development companies usually run this affiliate model. Your content marketing goal would be to promote their brand apps or software so that people download or install them.  
  3. Pay per lead: This affiliate model rewards you whenever someone signs up for a free trial or buys a freemium product through your link. It’s a popular payout method for online sweepstakes and lead generation.  
  4. Pay per click: Your affiliate link earns you commissions for every click. No customer has to sign up or purchase to trigger a commission. Although rare, large merchants use this payout system to build brand awareness. 
  5. Pay per action: This flexible affiliate model rewards you for a specific action your audience takes. For instance, it could be a newsletter signup, a click, or a form submission.

Regardless of the affiliate program model you choose, you’ll have to create and implement the right advertising and outreach strategies to earn from affiliate marketing. 

We recommend reading our guide on affiliate marketing for beginners to learn more about affiliate marketing, and this post which clarifies whether affiliate marketing will be worth it for you.

Digital marketing vs affiliate marketing: Fundamental distinctions

Digital marketing and affiliate marketing are both forms of advertising, but they differ in some ways. The fundamental distinctions between them are as follows:

1. The reach

Digital marketing is a broad concept. It encompasses various digital channels which you can use to run different marketing campaigns for your business. This flexibility means you ultimately reach a broader audience through effective content marketing strategies and paid ads targeting specific demographics and interests in your niche.

Affiliate marketing, on the other hand, is a much narrower concept. It is a form of digital marketing that uses a few online channels and digital marketing techniques to promote products and services.

Though both approaches can reach a large audience, affiliate marketers limit their reach to those channels they can control. This means they target a smaller audience and sometimes one channel at a time because of their main objective.

2. Competency

Digital marketing requires a high level of technical expertise. You need to know how to create and manage effective content marketing and ad campaigns on various channels, as well as how to track the results.

Affiliate marketing is a more beginner-friendly strategy. You don’t need to have any technical expertise to start promoting affiliate products or services.

3. Ownership

With digital marketing, you own the entire brand and product marketing process. That means you control the content you create, the ads you run, and how you track your results.

With affiliate marketing, you don’t have any control over the brand product marketing. You are essentially a middleman between the company or individual whose products or services you promote and their customers.

Plus, it’s common for brands to hire a digital marketer on a full-time, contract, or freelance basis. That means the company can enforce a work ownership agreement between them and the marketer. On the other hand, affiliate marketers are not bound to one company and can promote products for other companies to earn commissions.


What are the benefits of digital marketing and affiliate marketing?

A successful digital marketing strategy can increase brand awareness, generate leads, and boost sales. Affiliate marketing can help people earn passive income by promoting other businesses’ products or services. It can also help people build their networks and reach a wider audience.

What is the best way to get started with affiliate marketing?

The best way to get started with affiliate marketing is to find a high-quality affiliate program that offers products or services you are knowledgeable or passionate about. Then, create a website or blog to promote the products or services. You can also promote affiliate products on social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, X (formerly Twitter), and LinkedIn.

What skills do you need to become an affiliate marketer?

The beauty of affiliate marketing is that you can learn as you go. You don’t need any special skills to become an affiliate marketer. However, basic search engine optimization (SEO) knowledge and digital marketing might be helpful.

How much money can I make with affiliate marketing?

The amount of money you can make with affiliate marketing will vary based on several factors, including the affiliate program you choose, the products or services you promote, and the amount of traffic you drive to your website. However, making a significant amount of money with affiliate marketing is possible. Some affiliate marketers earn thousands monthly, while others earn even more.

Digital marketing and affiliate marketing — Figuring out the best choice

Digital marketing and affiliate marketing are both effective strategies for reaching your target audience and growing your business. The best strategy for you will depend on your specific goals and budget.

If you want to reach a large audience and have the technical expertise to manage effective digital marketing campaigns, then digital marketing may be the right strategy for you.

If you are looking for a more beginner-friendly strategy and don’t mind earning a commission on sales rather than owning the entire marketing process, then affiliate marketing may be a better fit.

Zilahy Máté
Zilahy Máté
Máté is a Content Partnerships Manager at GetResponse, where he manages relationships with content partners and develops new content initiatives that drive engagement and lead generation. In his role, he works closely with the marketing team to identify opportunities for collaboration and ensure that the company's content offerings align with its marketing strategy.