You’ve probably heard of Amazon Associates, and there’s a good reason for that—the program has been around since 1996. But you might not be well-versed in what it really is, how it works, or how your parent group can use it to make money.

Amazon Associates vs. AmazonSmile

A note up front: Amazon Associates is not the same as AmazonSmile. AmazonSmile is a charitable program for nonprofits, and through it Amazon donates 0.5 percent of the total of qualifying purchases (that’s $5 out of every $1,000).

Amazon Associates is known as an affiliate program, and it’s open to any business, individual, or nonprofit. It allows participants (called “associates”) to promote Amazon products and links, earning up to 10 percent in referral fees on qualifying products. The idea is that by helping drive traffic to Amazon products and links, associates get a commission. And with returns that are much higher—up to 10 percent on qualifying products versus 0.5 percent in the AmazonSmile program—Amazon Associates tends to be much more profitable for PTOs. For some businesses and websites, in fact, Amazon Associates can be a major source of revenue.

Holiday shop how-to! Choosing a vendor, getting organized, and lots of promotional tools

How Does Amazon Associates Work?

When the typical participant—such as a blog or business—creates Amazon links to use on their websites and customers click through those links to buy products, that associate earns referral fees—on that product and on any other products the user clicks on and buys after that first link. For example, if you promote a book and from there a user clicks on (and ultimately buys) a coffee maker, you’d earn a commission for the sale of the coffee maker, too, along with anything else in the cart purchased at the same time.

This format isn’t as common for PTOs and PTAs, however—while parent groups can promote products and links in the way described above, it’s more common for them to feature banner-type ads for Amazon links, like in the sample shown below.

Amazon Affiliates for Schools

Another popular option is to enable a widget called a “native shopping link” on a PTO website. It functions like a small search bar that essentially allows users to search the whole Amazon catalog.

Amazon Affiliates for Schools

According to the Amazon Associates website, participants can be paid by check, direct deposit, or Amazon.com gift certificates approximately 60 days after the end of each month.

Advantages and Drawbacks

It’s free to sign up. Businesses, individuals, and nonprofits can all participate.

It can be profitable. Using Amazon Associates can result in a significant amount of money, even thousands of dollars a year for some parent groups. The majority of items on Amazon qualify for return percentages of up to 10 percent.

If you’re blogging, you can determine the products you want to promote. If you’d rather not limit users to product links within blog posts, you can choose to display a widget that allows users to search the whole catalog.

It can seem complicated. Because there are different ways to use the program, it can take some trial and error to figure out what will work best for your school.

There are rules you need to know. Program compliance is important, and Amazon regularly audits and suspends accounts that violate its terms—so read their terms of use thoroughly. (There are services available online to help participants make sure they’re in compliance with Amazon’s rules; search “Amazon affiliates compliance” to find one.)

Tips for Making Amazon Associates Work

Be patient. Like other affiliate marketing programs, there’s a process—and it can take time and patience to work through it and eventually see a profit. This blog post about becoming an Amazon affiliate can help you navigate getting started.

Pick good products to promote. If you go the route of blogging to promote products, don’t pick products just for the sake of making money; try to pick those that are relevant and appealing to your audience.

Remind people about the program—and then remind them again! Every year at Thanksgiving time, the Thompson Elementary PTO in Arlington, Mass., sends around an FAQ flyer to remind parents about the school’s participation in the program. “It’s retraining ourselves and others to get school credit” when shopping on Amazon, says PTO fundraising coordinator Ashley Lorenz, adding that the late November timing works well for holiday shopping.

In addition to the flyer, the Thompson PTO includes frequent mentions of the program in its newsletter and keeps it visible on a school bulletin board (and on the website) throughout the year.

Ask for help. While it can be tricky to figure out the program at first, that’s a normal part of any new process where technology is involved. If possible, enlist a parent who’s tech-savvy to help set up your group, decide the best method to promote Amazon links, and maintain the program.