- Bruce Paulson is a freelance SEO specialist who creates affiliate marketing websites.
- Paulson said his business started to grow once he put himself in the customer's shoes.
- He said he sunk more money back into his business last year than ever and it became his most successful year.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Bruce Paulson, a 43-year-old freelance SEO specialist and founder of Determined Solutions, from North Carolina about scaling his business. It's been edited for length and clarity.
In 2022, I made almost $203,000 in revenue from affiliate marketing alone. Affiliate marketing is the strategy that helped to move the needle for my income.
I've been the owner-operator of an SEO agency since 2015. For the first five years, all I did was work with clients, but I struggled to grow my business. Even though I was good at getting SEO results, which is moving a website to the top of Google searches, I wasn't good at selling my SEO services.
But in 2020, I started learning how to build simple affiliate websites, which is where you recommend a product or service and if someone makes a purchase you get a small payout.
When I first started doing affiliate marketing I didn't understand it
At first, not much was happening so for a long time I thought I was building websites and going nowhere. I didn't know how to put an offer in front of an audience or how a company would pay me for traffic from my website. Once I started, I slowly began to learn — and I'm still learning.
Affiliate marketing is about building a targeted audience, or traffic. If I have a website about stand-up paddleboards that gets a lot of monthly visits from paddleboard enthusiasts, I can buy a product, write a review about it, and possibly recommend the product to readers.
If the readers like what I say, click on my link to the company, and buy a paddleboard, I can get anywhere from 3% to 10% of the purchase price in commission.
Once I understood affiliate marketing, I started to put myself in the customer's shoes
I started to think about the questions customers might have about a particular product, then I'd write articles that answer those questions. Doing this correctly can lead to more sales.
Eventually, I made my first sale and wanted to make more. So I built more affiliate websites. I also tried a bunch of different niches, from water sports, insurance, and mortgages to credit cards, boats, and the health industry.
I have affiliate offers from Amazon, Avantlink, ShareASale, and other private programs
Amazon is pretty easy to get into — all you have to do is have public advertising disclosures on your website. Avantlink and ShareASale are similar except they have lots of companies that work with them, and those particular companies have to approve you by looking at your website and seeing if they want to work with you.
If I have a website about stand-up paddleboards and I apply to a big company's running-shoes program on Avantlink, that company probably won't accept me because my website traffic is not relevant to their market. But if I apply to the Bluefin stand-up paddleboard program with my paddleboard website, I'll likely get accepted because my traffic is relevant to that company, and there's a decent chance that exposure for Bluefin will result in sales.
In my first two years of building affiliate websites, I probably spent more money on them than I made
I'm currently running six websites and plan to build more. There are many costs associated with each website. Some expenses include buying a domain for around $20, securing hosting for $180 per year, and paying a cheap web designer on Upwork to build the first five pages of the website for around $300.
I could write articles myself for free, but it takes me forever and they aren't the best articles, so I opted to pay for decent articles at $100 per article — I need a minimum of 30 articles but realistically around 200 articles on the sites. I pay a cheap web designer on Upwork to post my articles for $10 to $15 per article. Additionally, I pay $2,400 per year for an Ahrefs account, which is a tool for keyword research, competition analysis, and more.
When building affiliate websites I need some interest in the topic like water sports, finance, or digital marketing. If I don't have interest in the topic, I get frustrated and quit.
In 2022 I got better at asking myself, what is someone really after when they search for something on Google
I got better at thinking about “the intent behind the intent.” That's helped me focus on ranking for more specific searches. Now, instead of trying to rank for “socks” — a term that gets a ton of monthly searches, is super hard to rank for, and has a very low conversion rate — I focus on ranking for searches like “winter socks that are warm and will keep my feet dry.” The latter has way less search volume, is not that hard to rank for, and has a very high conversion rate.
If I can rank No. 1 in Google for “winter socks that are warm and will keep my feet dry” and I recommend a nice pair of Smartwool socks, then I have a very good chance of making that sale — and that's my entire approach to SEO these days.
Having success at affiliate marketing has made me more successful at signing new clients
It's counterintuitive to put zero effort into looking for new client-work, yet have more people reaching out to me than ever. This turn of events has made it so I can turn down smaller jobs that aren't a good fit for me and focus on working with companies where I can move the needle.
When I was struggling with my business, if I worked harder I would just be struggling harder. Now that I'm getting some traction I have more energy. I wake up early and even work on the weekends.
I've sunk more back into my business this year than I could've ever imagined
Last year I spent $25,000 to join The Forge marketing mastermind group and it terrified me to do this. While medical bills and college were technically more expensive, this is the most money I've ever willingly spent in my life — even more expensive than the $16,000 I spent on a 2007 Subaru Forester that I still drive daily.
I joined the digital business mastermind group because the folks who taught me SEO in the first place created it. Even though I was already having some success with affiliate marketing,, I thought it would be great to have people who were way ahead of me look at my business and tell me how to improve it. It's also cool to be around people who are positive and motivate me to work harder.
2022 was my most successful year financially. For the first time, I have some traction with my business, and I want to pour as much gas on the fire as I can. I think in a few years, I'll be able to look back and have built something my parents can be proud of.
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