In most cases, you'd simply stop earning. Your income would stop and the checks would stop coming. Your income is limited by the number of customers you bring to the merchant in a given month.
That means you have to keep marketing your site to bring in new customers. Over, and over, and over again.
Make a sale, get paid and that's it. Your customer may buy more of the same product from your merchant partner, but you only get credit for the first sale.
The merchant benefits indefinitely from your introduction of the customer to the product, and you get only one credit?
Does that sound fair?
You bet it's not!
However, there ARE affiliate programs that pay commissions on all recurring charges, such as monthly newsletter subscriptions and web hosting packages. As long as your customer keeps ordering the product, you get residual commissions that keep coming in month after month, after you made the initial sale.
So, here's the bottom line. If the affiliate program doesn't pay residual commissions on recurring charges, you're losing money.
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