Kirsty McCubbin escaped the daily grind of 9 to 5 and has been earning a living as a full time affiliate for 12 years – 2 years out of that time doing nothing but travelling the world – all funded by her affiliate marketing earnings.
Kirsty is passionate about affiliate marketing, declaring it “the greatest occupation in the known universe” – it has given her a flexible lifestyle, able to stay at home looking after her two young children, while at the same time earn a full time income. Over the years Kirsty has put her internet marketing expertise into practice setting up & promoting websites in numerous market niches.
Recently returned to the UK after living in Australia for over 7 years, Easyspace caught up with her for a chat:
Q1. Kirsty, tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to working as a full time affiliate?
In 1999 I got my first job fresh out of uni. The job hadn’t existed when I started my tertiary education. I was a newly minted SEO! The fact that 12 months before I’d not so much as sent an e-mail? Irrelevant (not that I let on).
Fortunately, I was quite good at it. After 2 years my employer said one of my clients wanted an affiliate programme, and that I was to manage it. A girl called Liz from CJ turned up and trained me for an afternoon. Talk about a light bulb moment. I’d never realised I could make money from my SEO skills in my own time.
A month later, I was regarding my first commissions with pride. Six months after that I’d packed in my job and was off to Australia for a year of backpacking. That was in 2003, and I’ve made my living from affiliate marketing ever since.
I remember my boss in that SEO job saw my growing excitement and enthusiasm for affiliate marketing, and told my work colleague that “there’s not as much money in affiliate marketing as Kirsty thinks”.
I still laugh about that now.
Q2. How did you first make money when you started affiliate marketing?
My first sites were hideous doorway redirects. For anyone who doesn’t know you made a sort of meta refresh page in bulk, optimised the title and metas around a keyword, and released it onto the internet. Twenty minutes later it’d be indexed and you’d most likely wake up to a commission the following morning.
It really was like the Wild West in those early days when sites could rank based on whatever you stuffed into the meta tags, and Alta Vista was still generating decent traffic too. There was very little you couldn’t get away with in terms of spammy SEO. Changed days or what? Anyhow, It was enough to see me around Australia for a year (despite the Florida update happening early in my trip). No work, no worries, good times!
Q3. How exactly do you make money as an affiliate, and what are some of the affiliate sites you have created?
At the moment, I am heavily into PPC. Both via landing sites (not on Adwords) and direct to merchant. Probably about 85% of my revenue comes from that right now.
In terms of sites that are still doing OK – BlokesUndies.co.uk gets a relatively healthy traffic stream. I’m in the middle of “renovating” that one. I’m also hoping to relaunch Lingeriebrands.co.uk. I also have a lot of mini niche type sites, many of which have survived 4 years of neglect surprisingly well. For me, that’s been an interesting exercise as it does show me clearly the types of niche traffic that you can still rank for in these highly competitive times. Whilst I won’t be relying on organics as a stable revenue stream moving forward, what I’m seeing is highly encouraging. I’ll be doing a lot of work in the next little while on getting more organic sites on the go.
I work in a lot of niches including holidays, underwear, fashion, skin care, shoes, gifts, and anywhere else I think I can see an under exploited niche.
Q4. Apart from financially, how has affiliate marketing affected your lifestyle?
Affiliate marketing has given me pure freedom on a global scale. I’ve already packed in so many amazing life experiences. First of all, my husband and I (who I met on my first year of affiliate funded global fun) travelled the world for a year in huge style. After absolutely blowing our bucket lists out of the water several times over, we briefly returned to the UK before packing our bags and moving to Australia. And of course, that was seamless. The business and income came with us so we had no worries about finding jobs.
In Australia we bought a beautiful house and leveraged the business so we only worked 2 days a week. We did some tremendous trips over there, and also to New Zealand.
At the point where we decided to have a family, we did see the other side of affiliate marketing. That bit where you realise it can all be taken away from you in a second. As Penguin and Panda hit, I was newly pregnant, sick as a dog, and not in a position to deal with the changes in my usual “lets kick ass” fashion. I was seeing a lot of old friends facing up to a new life without affiliate income, and it was a deeply uncomfortable time.
Despite this, and with a newborn baby and no sleep I managed to fix things up so I could step away again and enjoy that all important time with my baby. That was in early 2012. Subsequently, Affiliate marketing has seen me through 3 years of child rearing with only irregular input from me. It also allowed my husband to be at home with the children too. It’s not as glamorous as those heady days of exciting travel and amazing hotels and resorts, but I’m so grateful to have had the time to spend with my little ones.
Q5. How do you drive traffic to your affiliate sites or to a website of a Merchant that you’re promoting?
It’s a pretty straightforward mix for me. Other than organic sites, I pull quite a bit of traffic from Google Adwords and send that direct to merchants. There’s still quite a bit of scope for affiliates to do this if you know where to look for opportunities.
I also do some Bing and Yahoo PPC to landing sites in certain sectors. There are most definitely some areas where you can get decent volume there.
Q6. What has been the best thing about running affiliate sites/promotions?
If I didn’t say the money, I think my nose would become improbably long in pretty short order.
However, I’ve always loved the ability to have a rich and varied selection of merchant’s products to work with. That fits really well with my personality. I have the worst concentration ever, and get bored quite easily. So being able to jump around at will between projects is very, very cool. It’s also counterproductive at times, but that’s something every affiliate has to try and manage.
Q7. What has been the worst thing about running affiliate sites/promotions?
I think it’s the separation between you and the companies you are working for. It’s not a direct relationship, and it involves the affiliate, the network, the merchant, and quite possibly an affiliate management agency. Miscommunication can be problematic.
Things can also change quickly in affiliate world. You can be making great money on a site or sites one day, and you can wake up the next and it’s all pretty much gone. There’s very much the potential for you to see a few years work detonated over the course of a few days or weeks. The cause can be search engines, changes to terms and conditions of programmes, businesses going bust, or a simple case of the competitive landscape changing. It’s not at all fun when you are at the sharp end of that stuff.
Q8. What’s your strategy when you launch an affiliate site?
To make the time I put into it pay me enough to make it worthwhile!
Q9. You’ve developed numerous websites. How do you know when to quit if a website isn’t performing as hoped?
It’s my aim to already know that the effort I’ve put into an organic or landing site most definitely will pay. It’ll either be connected to an area I know converts very well, and an obvious extension of existing activity, or I’ll have tested it via paid search.
I have never trashed a site due to it just not getting off the ground. I’ve always made money from pretty much everything I’ve put up.
Q10. Do you decide on the type of website you want to set up, and then look for a suitable domain name, or is the type of website you create determined by a good domain that you have managed to get hold of?
The domain is secondary for me – with a bit of imagination you can usually find a good one for your site. I must say like so many affiliates I have bought some domains I thought were crackers on a speculative basis. Those are the ones that don’t get developed. It’s just part of my mindset that I need to already know there’s money there to keep me motivated to put in the work on a site development.
Q11. What systems do you use for setting up your websites i.e. CMS’s such as WordPress, etc and why?
I use WordPress, it really is a remarkable platform. So customisable, and so many amazing widgets and plugins. Just about anything you can think of in terms of creating and structuring a site to make it work as you’d like can be done with not a huge amount of technical knowledge. Actually, this is my husband’s role in the business. He’s quite technical minded so when he’s not involved with his own business interests, he’s creating lovely wordpress sites to my specifications. I doubt any self respecting developer would put up with me. I’m one of those “make it up as you go” people. By the time most of my sites are done, he’s changed them completely 3 or 4 times. Lucky guy.
Q12. How has affiliate marketing changed over the last few years, and how have you responded to these changes?
The biggest recent change has been the Google Panda and Penguin updates which were game changers for many. But that’s been a regular fact of life for affiliate marketing since it all began. From the Florida update in 2003, to Google Adwords changing the rules so a display URL could only appear once in results, then the “bridge page” rule change, and the many ongoing algorithmic changes that Google have made to stamp out black hat SEO and focus on user experience.
What have I done? I’ve been a slave to Google’s every whim. I’ve tried to evolve and change with the times. And to my relief, I’m still in the game.
Q13. What mistakes have you made with your affiliate promotions/sites and what would you have done differently?
I can’t think of glaring mistakes. I mean, I was badly hit by Panda and Penguin. But so were a lot of people. Maybe if my approach had been less formulaic and more user focused I’d have come out better. But then again, maybe not. It’s too easy to engage in “what ifs”. I’m pretty happy with where I’ve ended up.
Q14. What’s it like being a full time affiliate? Describe your typical day
At the moment I walk my eldest daughter to nursery with my husband, then I get home, try to hide from my 22 month old toddler, make myself a coffee, and escape upstairs. I work until about 3 whilst my husband cares for the kids.
It’s a bit tricky at the moment as we’ve had to rent a house that’s too small for us after returning from Australia in December last year. I say “office” but I’m having to work in my bedroom and I’m struggling with concentration as a result. Bedrooms are for sleeping, not working.
However, my day is usually filled with checking out my PPC campaigns. Making sure they are all still paying. I’m also slowly rewriting content for the old sites I am re-doing, and fiddling around with their structure to try and improve the rankings (or just not destroying them, that’s fine too!).
My husband does all my tech stuff, so during the office time we have together we’ll work out new site structures and push along with development work. Again, this is kinda slow going at the moment as we are slowly sorting out childcare for the children, and Duncan is also restarting his old business from Australia – fixing mobile phones and tablets!
Q15. Where does that drive to be your own boss come from? Why did you decide the life of a 9-5 employee was not for you?
See above: irresponsible alcohol soaked Australia trip in 2003. Beyond that, realising how I could benefit from the beautiful economy of scale offered by AM. It’s positively intoxicating.
Q16. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?
I am most inspired by my fellow “old school” affiliates. The wonderful industry friends I’ve made did and still do inspire me. There’s a real entrepreneurial streak within all of them – the large business owners and the small time affiliates alike. I feel privileged to know such interesting people personally.
Q17. For anyone wanting to earn a living via affiliate marketing, what advice would you give them – and what skills would they need to have?
I think the skillset is quite eyewatering. Copy, web design, social media, SEO, PPC. And then the ability to find and monetise those niches.
Advice? Don’t focus on affiliate marketing. Create traffic first, monetise later.
Q18. What are your future plans?
Resettle in the UK, re-carve my affiliate niches to the best of my ability. And also find some ways to diversify my income streams. I’m lucky to still make a good living solely from affiliate marketing. I’d like to broaden that now, as much for my own satisfaction as for risk spreading. Like many other post maternity leave parents, I feel like I also need to be doing something new now that I’m not up to my neck in nappies. What that is I don’t actually know yet. My horizons are open, and so is my mind.
Thanks Kirsty, from everyone at Easyspace.
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Has Kirsty inspired you to start your own business? Maybe she has encouraged you to set up your own website? If she has, then begin by searching for the domain name you want, then get some web hosting.
A great way to quickly get your own website is to use WordPress – it is easy to setup, manage and update – and best of all you’ll have a great looking website too.