Many entrepreneurs running very small businesses have had to revamp their marketing strategies to make them more efficient, as the pandemic has placed more demands on their time. One avenue that is often overlooked is affiliate marketing. This an arrangement where other, like-minded entrepreneurs agree to promote your business in exchange for a cut in the sales.
Selena Soo, 39, has found that affiliate marketing has been a powerful tool for growing her business, S2 Groupe, a marketing and publicity consultancy that focuses on clients in the small-business space and has a strong representation among those involved in personal development and wellness. The business brings in more than $2 million in revenue annually, through offerings such as Impacting Millions, a once-a-year course on PR Soo developed that will start taking signups on March 17, as well as her Impact Accelerator group-coaching program and PR services for select clients. Soo, who lives in Puerto Rico, relies on the help of three full-time employees and around ten contractors, depending on whether she has a big project in the works. Living there, instead of her former home in New York, has allowed her to enjoy pleasures like swimming in the ocean in the afternoon and to avoid encumbrances like owning a car, as she described to Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, in a recent article.
Soo began setting the stage for running the business as a student at Columbia University, when she created the university’s first undergraduate conference on women in business. In working on that project, she found she had a knack for attracting high-profile speakers, who included Susan Lyne, then-CEO of Gilt Groupe; Pattie Sellers, co-founder of Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Business brand; and television journalist Maria Bartiromo. Soo developed that talent further when she became a senior program manager at the Step Up Women’s Network, a nonprofit organization. In that role, she organized professional mentoring events, as well as recruited junior board members who would be involved in fundraising.
Soo’s knack for building relationships like these proved valuable in 2012, when she launched S2 Groupe. She wasn’t formally trained in PR, but she found she had a natural strength in influencing others and creating connections where both people benefited. When it was time to put up her company’s website, she reached out to some of the high-profile media contacts and influencers she had gotten to know, for a short, written testimonial. One came from inspirational speaker Danielle LaPorte, author of White Hot Truth. The other was life coach Marie Forleo, host of MarieTV. Soo found those testimonials immediately made a difference in attracting clients. “I had that instant credibility,” she says.
During the early months of her business, Soo started with her first client paying her on retainer, as many PR firms do. That helped her bring in a steady income, but the relationship was stressful, and she realized it was making her miserable. Still, Soo liked publicity work and didn’t want to give up on it entirely.
Fortunately, she realized that there was another way to share her expertise: Teaching it. She began planning a two-day workshop in New York City around the theme “Elevate Your Brand,” and promoted it on Facebook and to her email list of 150 people—which she’d built after writing a guest post for a major business publication. She charged $600 for the workshop and held it in her home. Seven people signed up for the event in the fall of 2012.
That was a small number, but Soo realized something extremely important to the future growth of her business: She’d earned more in two days than she had in a month working with her retainer client—and, perhaps more important, really enjoyed the interaction with the clients in the workshop. Once she had gotten this proof of concept for her workshop idea, she repeated the event in the spring of 2013 and raised the price to $1,200—finding that demand was still high and she was still able to fill it up.
With the hope of growing her business further, Soo hired mentors and joined mastermind groups. Participating in the mastermind groups required a substantial investment, but it helped Soo to expand her thinking about her business and inspired her to create her own six-month mastermind on PR, for which she charged $9,500. She offered one-on-one coaching, meet-the-media events, and group calls. That led to a year-long mastermind, for which she charged $24,000.
But Soo realized not everyone could afford a high-end mastermind, so she created her first course. She was mentored by Sethi in his program called Zero to Launch. In the course, he encouraged her to do market research. “You need to validate your course idea,” she says. “It’s not just talking to friends who say, ‘Oh, yeah—that’s a good idea.’”
The real test, she learned, is if people are willing to pay for it. Sethi recommended students ask prospects if they would be willing to pay a particular price for a given course, as in “If I sold this for $297, would you be interested in purchasing this?” She paid close attention to their responses. Unless the general response was along the lines of “Please, I want to give you my money,” she would not move ahead. In the course of her research, as Soo connected with more of her ideal clients, she listened carefully to what they were saying and what they needed, as Sethi recommended. She was able to develop Get Known, Get Clients, a six-month program to help students attract their ideal clients, based on what she had learned.
A business coach initially advised Soo to keep the program to three months, to set a goal of charging $1,000 for it, and to aim for signing up ten students—but Soo questioned that approach. She would need to put in three months of work ahead of time without a sufficient return on her investment. “$10,000 for six months of really hard work didn’t make sense,” says Soo.
She trusted her gut and opted for a six-month program, with twelve training sessions she taught live online and an additional Q&A each month. The course also came with scripts and templates to help clients with processes such as sales calls. She charged $3,000. She attracted 50 students—and made $150,000.
Once Soo knew how to create successful courses, she continued to build on her knowledge and ultimately developed her signature course, Impacting Millions, in 2016. Impacting Millions helps entrepreneurs land media coverage and become go-to experts in their industry. It includes seven video training modules, twelve months of live Q&A calls, a private Facebook community, and access to an online membership area. The year-long course sells for $2,997. Soo has found that continuing to update and refresh this course is a better investment of her time and brings more value to her customers than continually introducing new courses.
Now that thousands of customers have taken her courses, Soo has found that affiliate marketing is particularly helpful in spreading the word. “That’s one way we keep our business lean,” she says. She pays a 50 percent commission to affiliate partners who run coaching programs, courses, e-newsletters, websites, and other properties if they send her paying customers—a little higher than the 40% many influencers offer. “It’s really good for visibility and customer acquisition,” says Soo. “You’re only paying if you get customers.” Soo issues affiliate links so she can track their sales. She finds that graduates of her mastermind or Impacting Millions are the ideal affiliates—and tend to gravitate. “It’s an additional revenue stream for their business,” she explains. Those who achieve certain sales benchmarks can win a trip to Tulum for a mastermind retreat. Not surprisingly, there are many takers.
In 2021, Soo has more than 200 affiliates, 70 percent of whom are active promoters, and will be taking applications for more until the beginning of March. The affiliates will start promoting this year’s Impacting Millions course on Feb. 15.
She selects the affiliates carefully, by application. “What does it take to be a great affiliate? A big part is treating a launch like it is your own,” says Soo. “Sometimes people think they can send one or two emails to their followers. When you are doing a launch as an affiliate, you have to bridge the gap between who you are, what you offer and why you are recommending someone else’s program.”
The most successful affiliates will often offer a bonus package—a gift or deal for someone who uses their affiliate link. “Maybe you are offering some of your one-on-one services, to help them get results faster,” says Soo. “Maybe you are offering a workshop, event or mastermind to complement what the people you are promoting are offering inside of their program, putting together content that shows some type of connection between you and them. It’s important to explain how you know each other and why you trust them.”
Because affiliate marketing is so dependent on the efforts of outside partners, many entrepreneurs prefer to use it in conjunction with other marketing efforts. Soo, for her part, has also gotten excellent results from appearing on podcasts, including Entrepreneurs on Fire and Smart Passive Income. She also found that guest posting on sites like Positively Positive is extremely helpful in reaching her ideal prospects. “The people there are very into coaching,” she says. “There are a lot of coaches, healers, spiritual people there. That is one of the audiences I’m looking to target.” A good rule of thumb for those who want to try guest posting, she says, is to spread the word in places your audience already hangs out. “Publicity for tech entrepreneurs is very different than for solo entrepreneurs and coaches,” she says.
Soo also uses Facebook ads, but says she waited to do that until her business began bringing in revenue in the multiple six figures: “They are tricky to figure out. You can spend a lot of money and not get results if you don’t know what you are doing.”
Fortunately, even if you do make some marketing mistakes, you can learn a lot from them. Ultimately, if you’re open to their lessons, they can be a powerful source of the knowledge you need to ultimately build a tiny business that makes big money.