What Is The Difference Between Affiliate And Referral Marketing?

Avatar photo
Hello, I'm Hannah & I'm part of the editorial team here at Commission Academy. I launched my first successful affiliate business in 2014 & now I enjoy sharing the information I've learned to help others do the same. I hope you enjoy my posts! :)

Quick Answer: Affiliate marketing involves promoting products or services for third-party companies in return for commissions whilst referral marketing is a strategy that involves encouraging existing customers to share a product or service in return for gift cards, discounts or points.

Ecommerce is a booming business model that’s becoming increasingly popular each year & typically, eCommerce companies will often advertise in the form of digital ads littered around social media sites, blogs, etc.

But besides advertising, marketing programs provide an additional boost to online presence and sales.

And one of the most common questions about this subject is this: What is the difference between affiliate and referral marketing?

So in this blog post, we’ll be defining each strategy and listing its advantages and disadvantages to help you distinguish one from the other.

What Is Affiliate Marketing?

An affiliate marketing program is usually utilized by influencers, blogs, podcasts, websites, and other online platforms with a sizable following.

In exchange for promoting a particular product or service, they would receive a certain amount conditionally.

This condition is if their audience or visitor would purchase or hire based on the link they provided. Affiliate marketing is usually done via articles, reviews, or paid ads.

Affiliate Marketing

The Advantages of Affiliate Marketing

Because this type of strategy is performance-based, success is determined by the effectiveness of the affiliate to persuade the audience or visitor.

Here’s what you can expect from taking advantage of this marketing strategy:


Most affiliate programs will not require purchasing ad space or hiring a third-party advertising company.

Instead, the affiliates will handle the manner in which the products or services will get promoted.

While selecting qualified affiliate applicants will take time and effort, marketing is an afterthought.

It has become such a staple for many eCommerce companies because they won’t have to worry about promotion.

Because affiliates accomplish the majority of the marketing strategies, they also have to cover the expenses associated with the promotion.

Companies are only obligated to pay the affiliates if they are able to bring in sales.

As such, it’s more cost-efficient compared to other marketing strategies like pay-per-click advertising.

There is no guarantee that the clicks will turn into sales, so affiliate marketing is advantageous for business owners.

While it appears that affiliate marketing brings more benefits to companies than affiliates cost-wise, there are still a couple of monetary conveniences for the latter.

Most affiliate programs do not require entry fees, which is suitable for those reluctant to try them and don’t want to pay anything.

More Earning Potential

Affiliate marketing is proven to be superior compared to other marketing strategies in terms of return on investment.

The reason is that the target audience is more reachable because the affiliate has the following already interested in a specific product or service.

For example, an affiliate known for fashion tips can organically promote a dress or makeup product.

They would have a higher chance of conversion because the audience they have trust or believe the insight of the affiliate.

This setup ensures that the company and affiliate concentrate their marketing efforts on those who are more likely to purchase.

When it comes to figuring out the difference between affiliate and referral marketing, earning potential is probably the key distinction.

Furthermore, commission caps are usually not utilized in this strategy, so affiliates can potentially earn much higher.


Starting a blog or creating a review website with minimal cost is possible.

Then, you can increase your marketing efforts if the program proves you can make money off of it.

Affiliate marketing allows members to personalize the methods on how to increase the chances of success as they see fit.

An affiliate can make a short blog post, a video review, a social media post, or explore the comments section.

Most of these ways might cost a little or nothing at all.

It’s possible to try them all to see which way gets positive interactions and sales conversions without worrying about expenses.

The Disadvantages of Affiliate Marketing

As with anything, venturing into affiliate marketing also comes with a few setbacks.


Due to the popularity of affiliate marketing, expect that several others are using a similar program you’ll use.

Startup bloggers and influencers can have difficulty finding success, as their more established counterparts will most likely have a more dedicated audience.

In the game of affiliate marketing or marketing in general, popularity is king.

Creating a viral post or vlog is usually effective. Still, it’s exceptionally challenging to make one if you can’t think of something that garners attention.

Overall, since pretty much anyone can join affiliate marketing, achieving success won’t be easy.

Slow Progress

Contrary to claims made by some vloggers or industry “experts,” success as an affiliate marketer won’t be a walk in the park.

Affiliate marketing is not the way to go if you want to rake in profits immediately.

Establishing a strong, sustainable online presence takes time, and earning commissions via your platform requires more.

Gaining a sizable audience, learning SEO tricks, building a reputation, and searching for a profitable affiliate program won’t happen naturally.

Because of these factors, we don’t recommend dedicating most of your time as an affiliate.

If you have a stable income or a regular nine-to-five job, it would be best to do affiliate marketing during rest days or after work.

This way, you have the luxury of taking your time learning and developing your marketing efforts.

Also, you won’t feel pressured to earn immediately since your day job can shoulder most of your expenses.

What Is Referral Marketing?

Referral marketing is a strategy that urges existing consumers to tell others about a product or service.

Instead of a monetary incentive, a referral program often rewards members with gift cards, discounts, or points.

Motivating proactive customers to encourage their family and friends to purchase something is what this marketing strategy is about. Several credible sources claim shoppers are more likely to buy a product or service if it’s introduced by someone they know.

This is why referral marketing is a powerful and effective tool.

Referral Marketing

The Advantages of Referral Marketing

Companies wouldn’t necessarily need to hire a popular public figure to promote their brand if their referral marketing game is strong.

Here’s what you can expect to happen if you focus on referral marketing:

Quality Leads

When learning what is the difference between affiliate and referral marketing, this aspect is where the latter is better.

Affiliate marketing can deliver good leads, but the conversion may be inconsistent since the audience may not necessarily be someone familiar.

In referral marketing, potential customers come from someone who gave real-life testimonies about a product or service.

It is more convincing than a cookie-cutter article that only highlights the good qualities.

The “organic” factor is significantly effective in convincing others.

For example, a techy cousin can influence you to purchase a particular graphic card more than a random Twitch streamer.

You can ask pretty much anything about the product, and you’ll probably get honest answers, which makes it easier to consider trying it.

Gauge For Customer Satisfaction

Companies will have a more accurate estimate of how effective or satisfying their products or services are if their referral marketing is thriving.

While it’s not the only factor for determining customer satisfaction, having a referral program will help if you are wondering if there’s something you need to improve.

Organic feedback is a byproduct of this strategy because members can share some concerns.

A company can use those to improve its brand and further increase sales.


Customers referred by a referral program member may already have a favourable opinion of a specific brand.

When this happens, the customer retention rate will become higher.

You might get surprised that companies prefer loyal customers rather than “one-and-done” types.

Customer loyalty is a decisive advantage because it ensures a steady flow of sales.

For example, the majority of iPhone users won’t switch to an Android phone anytime soon because they are satisfied and familiar with it.

The Disadvantages of Referral Marketing

Here are possible setbacks you’ll encounter when you engage in referral marketing:

Limited Audience

While having quality leads is one of the benefits of referral marketing, it also comes with a downside.

You can persuade family members, friends, and loved ones, but they won’t be able to support your program after some time.

If you are going out of your social circle to promote a brand, you are not much different from a product endorser.

It will severely lower the organic appeal of referral marketing, which could mean less success.

More Commitment

Unlike affiliate marketing, a referral program is not necessarily considered passive income.

It requires more interaction because you are likely to answer more questions from someone you know.

That’s why referral marketing is not for those with less time to spare.

To convince a person you know could take time and effort because you’ll probably have to address various queries.

Growth Challenges

While referral marketing is an effective strategy for those new to the market, we don’t always recommend it for already-established brands.

You might probably hit a wall after you exhausted your social circle “leads,” making it significantly challenging to convert sales.

Industry giants like PayPal grew their customer base by offering incentives for existing and new customers.

However, not all businesses have the financial capacity to support this scheme.

After a while, growth will soon become an issue for companies that only use referral marketing.

What’s The Difference Between Affiliate and Referral Marketing?

While these marketing strategies use other people to promote a specific product or service, the differences are evident.

Affiliate marketing focuses on new customers, while referral marketing focuses on existing ones.

Earnings may also be different since a referral marketing program may not always provide monetary incentives.

The contrasts between these two means that no marketing method is greater than the other.

Instead, you’d be better off combining the two and reaping the benefits of both.

And the good news is that if you’d like to pursue affiliate marketing & learn how to begin generating commissions by recommending products or services, then we have a free step-by-step training course on offer that teaches exactly that.

Throughout the course, you’ll learn everything you need to know right from just starting out, all the way through to actually generating your very first commissions (and scaling things up into a truly thriving business).

So be sure to dive in & check out the free course. You’ve nothing to lose.

And of course, if you happen to have any additional questions, feel free to leave them below.

Free Training:

Launch a Thriving Online Business 💸

Training Video Preview

Our free step-by-step training will teach you how you can turn any passion or interest into a thriving online business even if you're a beginner with absolutely no previous experience. Sign-up today & learn a skill that could change your life.

Leave a comment