Affiliate Marketing vs Dropshipping: Which Business Model Reigns Supreme? [2024]

affiliate marketing vs dropshipping featured

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Ever found yourself at a crossroads, trying to decide the best path for your entrepreneurial journey? Two popular models you may be considering are affiliate marketing and dropshipping. In this article, we’ll compare the core aspects of affiliate marketing vs dropshipping and put them under the microscope.

Which Is Better Affiliate Marketing or Dropshipping? (My Recommendation)

I make the majority of my income promoting products as an affiliate marketer, but I also run in the same circles with guys making a killing from high-ticket dropshipping.

Dropshippers put in a lot of upfront work, including setting up an online store, mastering paid ads, securing deals with manufacturers, and providing customer service.

It’s a unique skill set that lends itself to more advanced online marketers.

If I were to recommend one model over another for a true beginner, I would pick affiliate marketing over dropshipping, hands down.

Affiliate marketing is appealing because of its simplicity. You choose niche products, drive your own campaigns, and make commissions directly proportional to your marketing efforts.

Given the low startup cost and the potential for passive income, it’s perfect for those who are new to online business or are not ready to make large initial investments.

It offers the flexibility to test different products and niches with lower financial risk.

But, if you’re confident in your abilities and have the resources to invest upfront, dropshipping could provide a faster route to significant earnings.

Which One Should You Pick to Make Money?

Choosing between affiliate marketing and dropshipping boils down to your personal preferences, resources, and the effort you’re willing to put in. Each has its own set of benefits and challenges, and your decision should align with your long-term business goals.

When choosing a business model for earning income online, affiliate marketing stands out as an excellent choice.

The beauty of this model lies in its flexibility and limitless earning potential. Your earnings are directly proportional to your ability to market effectively.

For many, it’s a preferred method due to the low entry barrier and the high potential for passive income over time.

Dropshipping, on the other hand, could be your go-to if you’re interested in having more control over the products you sell. With dropshipping, you can set your own prices and profit margins.

This model requires an upfront investment and a solid strategy to stand out in a crowded market. Yet, it offers a quicker path to earnings for those ready to tackle these challenges head-on.

Here are some considerations to weigh as you make your decision:

Pretty Table with Bold Factors: Dropshipping
Factor Affiliate Marketing Dropshipping
Skills Leans heavily on affiliate marketing skills. Requires knowledge in e-commerce management, customer service, and understanding of shipping logistics.
Initial Investment Typically requires less upfront cost. Low to moderate initial investment; costs include website setup and marketing, but no large inventory purchases.
Earning Potential Provides a percentage of each sale. Profit margins can vary; earnings depend on the difference between supplier cost and sale price.
Control Limits you to promoting existing products, providing less control. Gives more control over product selection and pricing, but less control over shipping and inventory management.

Remember, success in either model requires dedication, continuous learning, and adaptability.

Your choice should align with where you see the most potential for growth based on your skills, preferences, and financial goals.


While money can be made in both models, affiliate marketing is perfect for beginners and time-strapped solopreneurs. You can promote at your own pace with total ownership over scaling your income streams.

Are Either of Them Pyramid Schemes?

When diving into online business models like affiliate marketing and dropshipping, it’s crucial to differentiate them from pyramid schemes.

Understanding this distinction can save you from potential legal issues and ensure you’re investing your efforts into legitimate, sustainable business practices.

pyramid scheme

A pyramid scheme is a fraudulent business model that primarily makes money by recruiting new distributors rather than selling real products or services. The hallmarks of a pyramid scheme include:

  • Little to no focus on actual products – income relies heavily on bringing in new recruits
  • Paying commissions for enrolling others rather than product sales
  • Requiring large upfront buy-ins or investments to join
  • Promising exponential returns dependent on expanding the recruitment “downline”
  • Circulating money internally between invested participants rather than driving external sales.

In contrast, affiliate marketing is all about promoting products or services for a company and earning a commission on the sales you generate.

There’s no recruitment of additional affiliates required for you to earn. Your income stems from your marketing efforts, making it a straightforward and legitimate way to make money online.

Similarly, dropshipping offers a different approach from pyramid schemes. With dropshipping you sell products directly to customers without holding inventory. You purchase the product from a third party and have it shipped directly to the customer.

While it requires an upfront investment, the focus is on selling a tangible product, not on recruiting others. This model encourages entrepreneurship by allowing you to build a product portfolio without the need to create everything from scratch.


Both affiliate marketing and dropshipping are far removed from the structure of pyramid schemes. They offer genuine opportunities for income based on sales and marketing efforts rather than recruitment.

In my experience, search volume is typically a good indication of overall popularity.

However, popularity can fluctuate based on current economic trends, technological advancements, and shifts in consumer behavior.

Based on Google Trends data, it appears that dropshipping is the most searched of the two business models.

Below is a chart comparing the organic search popularity of affiliate marketing and dropshipping over the last 12 months.

affiliate marketing vs dropshipping google trends

What is Affiliate Marketing?

Affiliate marketing is a popular type of performance-based marketing that involves a business rewarding its affiliates for each customer brought by the affiliate’s own marketing efforts.

This marketing strategy is based on revenue sharing, where the affiliate is paid a commission for every sale or lead generated.

With affiliate marketing, the business and the affiliate benefit – the business gains more customers, while the affiliate earns money.

How Does Affiliate Marketing Work?

In affiliate marketing, you, the affiliate, select products or services to promote.

When a customer makes a purchase through your unique affiliate link, you receive a commission.

This performance-based earning model is attractive because it allows you to generate income without the need to create products or manage inventory.

The amount of commission you can earn in affiliate marketing varies widely and depends on several factors, including the affiliate program you choose, the products or services you promote, the commission structure, your marketing strategies, and the size and engagement level of your audience.

Basics of Earning Commissions

The commission rate you receive varies depending on the program and the product.

Digital products often offer higher commission rates, typically ranging from 30% to as high as 50% or more.

Digital products include software, eBooks, online courses, and memberships. Because there is no physical product to manufacture or ship, vendors can afford to pay higher commissions.

Commission rates for physical products are generally lower, often ranging from 4% to 15%.

This is due to the costs associated with producing, storing, and shipping physical items.

Grasping the nuances of affiliate commissions extends beyond simply knowing the percentage you earn from each sale.

It’s critical to also familiarize yourself with the various commission structures available, as these can considerably impact your earnings and strategy in affiliate marketing.

  • Pay-per-sale: You earn a percentage of the sale price when someone buys through your link.
  • Pay-per-click (PPC): You earn a fee for each visitor you redirect to the merchant’s website, irrespective of a sale.
  • Pay-per-lead (PPL): You earn a commission when referred visitors provide their contact information on the merchant’s site.

Key Players in the Industry

Affiliate marketing has three primary players:

  1. Merchants: Also known as creators or sellers, they create products or services. They establish affiliate programs to incentivize promotion by affiliates.
  2. Affiliates: Individuals or companies that promote the merchant’s offerings. They use various channels like blogs, social media, or email marketing to reach potential customers.
  3. Customers: The end-users who purchase the merchant’s offerings through affiliate referrals.

Additionally, affiliate networks act as intermediaries between merchants and affiliates, providing a platform for both to connect and manage the affiliate relationship.

With 81% of brands having affiliate programs, there’s a vast array of products and services you can choose to promote.

Passive Income Potential

Affiliate marketing is often celebrated for its ability to generate passive income.

Once you’ve established a strong promotional strategy and built a substantial audience, you can earn money even when you’re not actively working.

One key to unlocking this potential is creating evergreen content that continues to attract visitors and drive sales over time.

Another is leveraging SEO tactics to improve the visibility of your promotional content, increasing the likelihood of consistent, passive earnings.

Pros of Affiliate Marketing

Imagine earning money while you sleep, travel, or spend time with your loved ones.

That’s the allure of affiliate marketing – it offers incredible money-making opportunities.

Engaging in affiliate marketing comes with several advantages:

  • Low Startup Costs: You don’t need to create a product. Your main focus is on promoting existing ones, saving you from the high costs associated with product development and inventory management.
  • Passive Income Potential: Once your promotional content is live and traffic starts flowing, you can earn commissions round the clock, even when you’re not actively working.
  • Flexibility: Affiliate marketing allows you to work from anywhere and set your own schedule. You can choose products that resonate with your audience and interests.

Cons of Affiliate Marketing

Even though it’s appealing, there are challenges you’ll face in affiliate marketing:

  • Competition: Affiliate marketing has become highly competitive. Standing out in a crowded market requires creativity and strategic planning.
  • Dependence on Merchants: Any changes in commission rates or discontinuation of products can affect your income.
  • Limited Control: As an affiliate, you have minimal control over the product, pricing, and how it’s marketed. You must adhere to the guidelines provided by the merchant.

What is Dropshipping?

Dropshipping is a business model that’s often compared to affiliate marketing due to its potential to generate online income.

It involves selling products to customers without actually stocking the items. Instead, when you sell a product, you purchase it from a third party and have it shipped directly to the customer.

This section will delve into the dropshipping business model and the level of involvement required to manage it effectively.

How Does Dropshipping Work?

The dropshipping model allows you to run an ecommerce store without the need to handle physical products. 

Imagine you’ve set up an online store where you sell a variety of products, from tech gadgets to home decor.

When a customer places an order on your site, you purchase the product from your dropshipping supplier who then ships it directly to the customer’s doorstep.

You never see or handle the product, but you control the customer experience through your website and customer service.

You sell, someone else ships, and you pocket the difference in price.

Active Involvement and Management

Contrary to the more passive nature of affiliate marketing, dropshipping requires a more active role in daily operations.

As a dropshipper, you’re responsible for the sales platform, customer interactions, and overseeing the order fulfillment process, which includes ensuring that the orders are correctly processed and shipped from the distributor in a timely manner.

Operational efficiency is therefore crucial in the dropshipping business. Streamlining processes and minimizing costs are vital to maximizing profitability.

As you consider alternatives to affiliate marketing, remember that the dropshipping business model requires dedication and a hands-on approach to manage the many moving parts effectively.

However, when done correctly, it can be a rewarding way to build an online business with the potential for significant growth and scalability.

Pros of Dropshipping

Opting for dropshipping comes with a number of advantages:

  • Low Startup Costs: Without the need to invest in inventory, the barrier to starting a dropshipping business is significantly lower than traditional retail.
  • Flexibility: You can run your dropshipping business from anywhere with an internet connection. Whether you’re at a cafe or on the beach, your store is always open.
  • Wide Selection of Products: Since you’re not pre-purchasing the items you sell, you can offer a wider array of products to your customers.
  • Reduced Risk: With no inventory to manage, you’re not at risk of being stuck with unsold products.

Cons of Dropshipping

But, it’s not all smooth sailing. There are some drawbacks to consider:

  • Dependence on Third-Party Suppliers: The success of your business heavily depends on your suppliers’ reliability and product quality.
  • Competitive Market: Dropshipping’s low barrier to entry means more competition. Differentiating your store and making it stand out takes strategic planning and marketing.
  • Lower Profit Margins: Since you share a portion of the sales with suppliers, profit margins in dropshipping can be thinner compared to traditional retail.

Differences Between Affiliate Marketing and Dropshipping

Diving deeper into the comparison between affiliate marketing and ropshipping, it’s essential to understand some critical distinctions.

These differences can significantly impact your decision-making process, especially if you’re aiming to establish a new online business.

Startup Costs

In affiliate marketing, the barrier to entry is relatively low.

You can start promoting products and earning commissions without the need to purchase and store inventory.

This makes affiliate marketing an attractive option for those who are looking to venture into online business with minimal initial investment.

On the other hand, dropshipping also has lower startup costs compared to traditional retail businesses. It eliminates the need for upfront capital to buy inventory, as you only purchase products from the supplier after your customer has made a purchase.

However, you may incur costs associated with setting up your online store, subscribing to a dropshipping service, and potentially purchasing samples for quality assurance.

Here’s a basic comparison of the estimated start-up costs:

Business Model Start-Up Costs Table
Business Model Estimated Start-Up Costs
Affiliate Marketing $0 – $500 (for website hosting, domain registration, and marketing tools)
Dropshipping $500 – $1,000 (for website setup, dropshipping service subscription, and initial marketing budget)

Customer Relationship

Customer relationship management varies significantly between the two business models.

With dropshipping, you’re responsible for customer support and building long-term relationships, as you’re the seller. This can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on your customer service skills and resources.

Affiliate marketing, on the other hand, allows you to sidestep the nitty-gritty of customer service, as the product owner handles all customer interactions.

Revenue Share

The revenue share structure is another critical difference.

In affiliate marketing, your earnings are a percentage of each sale, which varies by program and product.

But, with dropshipping, your profit margins are the difference between the wholesale price paid to suppliers and the retail price charged to customers, offering potentially higher earnings per product sold.

Control Over Pricing

Control over pricing is a significant advantage of dropshipping over affiliate marketing.

With dropshipping, you have the freedom to set your prices, which can be adjusted to optimize profit margins.

But, in affiliate marketing, the product owner sets the price, and you have little to no leverage unless you possess a substantial audience or negotiating power.

Risk Factors

The risk factors associated with each model can’t be overlooked.

While affiliate marketing offers a safer bet due to low upfront costs, your earnings are dependent on successful referrals, and competition can be fierce.

In contrast, investing in dropshipping has an inherent risk related to the initial outlay and the ongoing need to market the product effectively.

But, the potential for higher earnings might justify this risk for some entrepreneurs.

Affiliate Marketing vs Dropshipping: Final Thoughts

Choosing between affiliate marketing and dropshipping is an important decision for any aspiring online entrepreneur.

So, take a moment to reflect on what excites you and where you see your strengths.

That’s where your best chance of success lies.

Remember, success in online business isn’t just about choosing the right model but also about how well you execute it.

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