There’s a concept we mention sporadically on this blog that we’ve never dedicated an entire post to: monetization.
Specifically, when we talk about monetization in the context of authority sites, we usually refer to a concept we call revenue stacking.
And it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: stacking the multiple types of monetization on top of each other so that you have a revenue coming in from lots of different sources.
Recently, though, when I was sitting down to plan the business model of my new site last year, I realized I only really knew two (pretty simple) monetization methods in any real depth.
And so I went on a quest–a quest to learn as much about the different ways in which you can monetize a blog as I possibly could.
If I wanted to create a high-power, ultra-optimized revenue stack, I needed to find and understand all of the pieces of the puzzle.
This post outlines the fruits of that quest.
…an exhaustive list of every single monetization tactic.
PART 1: Advertising
Let’s start with the one everyone knows: CPC ads.
CPC ads = ads that pay when someone clicks on them.
Cost Per Click (CPC) ads are one of the predominant ad types on the internet, and most of you have probably used them.
And most people use them because the most popular CPC networks have an extremely low technological barrier of entry (it takes all of five minutes to get an AdSense ad on your site).
Just because they’re easy doesn’t mean they donke money, however…
The easiest and most obvious example is probably from my own site, since I talk about it all the time anyway, and because this particular site represented my first foray into CPC ads.
Here’s screenshot of my earnings from HerePup.
This is a pretty old screenshot, but it also captures the “lightbulb” moment — the moment in which I finally started to figure out CPC ads.
At the time, getting CPC ads to work on my site increased my revenue by about 50%, which was massive.
Of course, we independent site builders aren’t the only people who use CPC ads. Sites as big as Forbes put them front and center.
IN addition to a massive interstitial CPC ad you have to click around before you can even access the content on the site, they also have ads all over their content, including a Media.net ad at the bottom.
In other words, CPC ads are ubiquitous, and it’s because they represent one of the oldest and simplest possible transactions for advertisers on the internet–paying for clicks–as well as one of the oldest and simplest ways for publishers to earn money: selling clicks.
CPM = Cost Per Thousand impressions.
The defining feature of a CPM ad is that you don’t get paid for clicks; you get paid every 1,000 times a user sees it.
Lots of times, publishers will use CPM ads in addition to other types of ads, and they put them mostly in their lowest-converting real estate.
Because of this, CPM ads typically don’t pay as much as CPC ads, but they do offer lots of other benefits–namely stability: CPM ads are going to pay out the same no matter how many people click on them, so long as your traffic stays the same, you know what you’re going to paid.
Rather than showing you a specific site, I’m just going to highlight more of the newer CPM ad networks most of us can probably already use.
Because here’s the thing: CPM networks, for whatever reason, can be difficult to get into, especially if you don’t have much traffic.
However, most of us here are probably already using the Amazon Associates program, and just recently, they launched their own CPM ads that anybody who is part of the Amazon Associates program can use.
They allow you to create them just like you would any ad, setting a target CPM, size, etc.
There are, of course, lots of other CPM networks out there, but if you’re looking to get started, why not use a network you are already a part of?
Frontfill ads = ads with advanced targeting that fill first and at higher CPM than your standard networks.
These could very possibly have an actual name, but if they do, I don’t know it, so I’m calling them frontfill ads.
Get it? Frontfill. Opposite of backfill.
Frontfill ads are served by platforms first. Whatever inventory isn’t filled, you can fill with your standard networks (e.g. AdSense, Media.net).
I haven’t gotten to test many of these networks, but I have learned a bit about the network Criteo.
Criteo basically allows advertisers to retarget users on your site. You set a CPM floor (usually a bit higher than your normal ad networks), and advertisers will pay it because of the better targeting.
Jon Dykstra from Fat Stacks has been experimenting a lot with Criteo and has had some great results. He explained it in a bit more detail:
Criteo’s ads will display for visitors to your site who have shown via web browsing history they are interested in buying something. For example if they recently visited Zappos shoes, Criteo would display a Zappos ad to them. The reason you earn more is those visitors are higher value and therefore advertisers are willing to pay more on a CPM basis.
I took at stab at making this into a diagram. Fair warning: there’s a high probability this diagram is complete sh*t.
So, basically, Criteo offers advertisers a way to reach people who have already shown interest in their products, which drastically increases what they’re willing to pay for an ad.
Of course, you probably won’t be able sell all your ad inventory this way, since it’s not likely 100% of your traffic have visited advertisers’ sites.
And that’s why it’s a frontfill ad.
You essentially just give Criteo advertisers first dibs on your inventory if they want to pay more. If they don’t, you can just use your standard networks.
I asked Jon more about his experience. Here’s what he likes about Criteo.
You are in full control via Criteo with how much you earn on a CPM basis. I typically set the Criteo floor $.50 to $1.00 above what either AdSense or Media.net will earn in those spots.
The best part is Criteo will almost always pay out more than the floor CPM you set.
I also asked him how much money he made from them per day.
I’d say $30 to $35 USD per day [a 10% increase].
It’s not mega bucks, but it’s great incremental revenue [what we call a “revenue stack” around here]”
While we were chatting, Jon also mentioned that one of the unexpected benefits of using Criteo was that when he told Media.net the kinds of CPMs he was getting, they started optimizing his ads like crazy to try to earn back that piece of Jon’s business.
- Analyze your current CPMs.
- Sign up for a platform like Criteo.
- Set your CPM floor $0.50-$1,00 above your current CPMs.
- Install Criteo and let ‘er rip
- If you get good results, contact your other networks.
- Ask other networks to compete.
Privately Sold Ads
Privately sold ads = ad space bought directly by an advertiser.
And really, privately sold ads can mean a lot of things, but in this context, I’m mostly talking about privately sold banner ad space.
This sort of monetization usually isn’t all that common with smaller, independent blogs — mostly because it’s so hands-on — but it can work for them.
There are networks on which you can sell ads to advertisers privately, but a lot of these deals go down through more old-fashioned sales processes.
And I would know.
When I first moved to Chicago way back in 2008, the only job I could find was cold calling businesses selling exactly these kinds of ads over the phone. It wasn’t a great job, but I did get to see how these ad sales work.
So believe me when I tell you that if you are in the right Market, these ads can make a lot of money.
This is my old employer.
They wouldn’t call themselves an authority site, but that essentially what they are–or, it’s at least one branch of their business.
The owner is an expert in his respective medical niche, which is what the website covers. The cell ads two related companies in the same market.
These are the kinds of ads I used to sell over the phone.
Everyday, I would get a list of leads, and I would just bang away trying to build relationships and get people to purchase add spots. I was absolutely terrible at it.
But the company… the company did very well (well enough to support several employees and host a big conference every year), and privately sold ads were the primary revenue driver.
What’s most interesting to me here, though, is that the site wasn’t ever that big of a website. And it’s still not.
They did, of course, have other ways of making money besides just their website, but it’s still worth noting that a relatively small website can generate very impressive revenue with this kind of monetization.
I worked for them a long time ago, and I don’t know exactly how they are selling ads now, but when I was there, I was selling these ads with good old-fashioned phone calls.
- Sign up for networks like BuySellAds or OpenX ( a programmatic platform, but same idea).
- Build an additional list of leads (you’ll need hundreds).
- Create a media kit to show potential advertisers.
- Start contacting people by phone or email.
- Make some sales.
- Place the ads using something like AdInserter or Random/Rotating Ads.
- Provide analytics
Sponsored content = content paid for (and sometimes created) by an advertiser.
Sponsored content, for people creating sites like we do, usually means a paid blog post.
Typically, it takes the form of a native ad: a blog post that looks like a more or less regular piece of content–but that also includes some sort of branding or light product promotion.
I see surprisingly few blogs monetizing with sponsored content, at least in our circles. And that’s shocking to me because some of the biggest blogs I know of make incredible amounts of money with sponsored content (one of those blogs was kind enough to pop in to talk to us about it below).
Before I show you that example, though, I want to clear up one weird misconception about sponsored content…
Whenever I talk to an SEO about sponsored content (even Gael), they invariably say something like, “Yea, but that’s basically just to selling links.”
Because SEO is the primary skill set for most of us, we’re used to thinking links first all the time. In the bigger world of sponsored content, however, the people buying are not SEOs looking for links.
They are brands looking for exposure.
They don’t care about links; they care about eyeballs. To better illustrate, let’s look at an example from one of my favorite sites of all time…
Example: Pinch of Yum
I’ve been a fan of Pinch of Yum since before I built my first site, and I’ve written about them a few different times on this blog, including in the big review of blogger income reports we recently re-published.
Pinch of Yum Has since stopped publishing income reports, but as I was looking over their income report the past couple of months, I was shocked to see exactly how much money they were making from their sponsored content.
Of course, this is a very big blog, but sponsored content still makes up a very large chunk of their revenue, even beating out Amazon Associates.
So what does the start of content look like?
Basically, it looks like a regular blog post with the addition of some light branding and an (importantly) nofollow link.
If you scroll down a little bit, you’ll see a disclosure letting the Pinch of Yum readers know that the post has been sponsored by a company (an FTC requirement).
And, yes, there is a link to that company’s website, but the link is both redirected and nofollowed.
So what does the advertiser get out of this?
In a word, brand exposure.
This blog post is a real recipe (they built a recipe plugin for WordPress that helps make this sort of thing), and it is actually useful for readers. When people are reading it, however, some of the ingredients are products from the advertiser’s brand.
The idea is that people will read this recipe, like it, want to try it, and go buy the ingredients listed on the blog, which are branded.
This is how bigger advertisers play. And for them, the playing field is a lot bigger (read: corporate advertising budgets are usually a lot larger than the amounts we are used to dealing with in our small, independent blogging world).
Bjork from Pinch of Yum was kind enough to offer some additional insights about how and why sponsored content works for their business.
I know you do a lot of sponsored content, and the content is always stellar. Why/how have sponsored posts been good for your business?
For content based businesses like ours (a food blog) we’ve seen a slow and gradual shift towards sponsored content, whether that be content on the blog or in social media. The reason? Attention. Readers are continually becoming more and more blind to traditional display advertising (less attention) and brands have realized that they can reach those readers by having their product within the content (more attention). So why has it been a good thing for our business? It’s one of our main revenue sources, as our primary focus isn’t a product or a service.
Why do people buy sponsored posts?
Brands are interested in sponsored posts because of the attention and trust that comes along with them. When a brand works with an influencer they are not only paying for the attention, but they’re also paying for the trust that the influencer has established with their readers. That’s why it’s critical that influencers only work with brands they truly know and love.
What’s the general process (how do you find people; who controls the editorial, etc.)?
It depends on the relationship and who is involved. It’s possible that a blogger works with an influencer agency that works with a PR agency that works with a brand. It can get complicated. In situations like that there are a lot of people weighing in on the content, and it can make the editing process mucky. In the simplest of relationships a brand will reach out directly to a blogger. Some brands will want to be heavily involved, while others give the creator complete control. Every creator is different when it comes to drawing a line for how much they allow the brand to be involved.
Bjork was also kind enough to record this awesome video walking us through some important info about sponsored ads.
This is a bit different than monetizing with standard affiliate programs.
Paid reviews = getting paid directly from a company to review something on your blog.
In reality, it’s a bit like a sub-genre of a sponsored post. The main difference is that with paid product reviews, you’re typically getting paid to review and write about a specific product rather than just putting subtle branding into an otherwise normal blog post (which is more or less the forum sponsored posts usually take).
The other important difference with paid reviews is that payment may not always be money; instead, you might get paid with free products or other swag.
It’s difficult to find really good examples of sites monetizing with paid product reviews because, frankly, the space is often kind of spammy, and the sites participating in it sometimes don’t really understand the risks (or marketing in general) that well.
It’s not uncommon to find, for example, tons and tons of mommy blogs publishing paid reviews for nearly every post.
That said, there are a few sites that do it correctly, even if they’re not huge. One example is Product Review Mom.
Lou, the owner, seems to use paid reviews as one of her primary monetization strategies and mostly uses it to supplement an otherwise pretty cool blog (although the focus is definitely still product-related). Here’s one example.
You can see here that Lou is treating this similarly to a sponsored post and/or native ad– mostly in that it blends in with her other content. You can also see that this post is entirely about one product and is written as if it is a review (again, slightly different than the other types of sponsored posts we’re talking about).
There are quite a few of them on the site, and Lou even has a guide to writing paid product reviews that she created herself.
Other Advertising Tactics
I’m not Superman y’all.
I haven’t used every kind of ad network or advertising monetization strategy out there. So, I wanted to compile a list of other tactics + a short explanation of what they are + some resources you can use to follow your nose and learn more about them if you want to.
1. Video Ads
I’m mostly talking about display video ads — as opposed to, say, ads on YouTube. Display video ads usually appear banners on the website (they’re sometimes those annoying ones that auto-play). Jon Dykstra describes them as essentially commercials. They seem to be growing in popularity (also according to Jon), and they probably make good money.
- Ad Pushup’s list of the top video networks
- Interesting report that shows video display ads are highly effective on mobile
2. Popup Ads
I’m sure everybody here knows what a popup ad is. It’s exactly what it sounds like: an ad that pops up while you are using a website. I have never ever, ever, ever used this site, but I hear you can see these ads on Pornhub. I personally have never tried them because I find them annoying, but I’m sure they can be profitable.
- One of the only guides I could find on pop-up ads
- Info on Google’s crackdown on interstitial ads (I’m sure it relates somehow)
- A list of the top pop-up ad networks
3. Pop-Under Ads
Pop-under ads works similarly to how pop-up ads– except that they pop under your browsing window instead of over it. There are considerably more resources for these type of ads than there are for pop-up ads, but they aren’t employed by many publishers (especially legitimate authority sites) because they’re still just annoying as hell. If you do want to experiment with them, here are a couple resources.
- The Earnings Guys’ list of pop-under networks
- The opposite view: a guy debunking myths about pop-under ads
4. Rented Pages
Is a basic idea behind monetizing with printed pages:
- Rank a page in Google for good keyword (usually a local business keyword)
- Contact companies who could benefit from that ranking
- Offer to rent the page to them for a monthly fee
I’ve seen this strategy gain popularity in the last couple of years, and I know Alex Becker fans particularly like the strategy because it doesn’t depend on ad or affiliate networks.
Please be aware
There are a lot of black hats in this space who may give you sh*t SEO advice. This tactic also involves phone sales.
5. Email Ads & Sponsored Emails
Just like you can sell advertising space on your blog, you can sell advertising space in your newsletter. Even better, the CPM’s you will get for ad space in your newsletter will typically be much higher than the CPM’s you will get for ad space on your blog (because the users are much more targeted).
Alternatively, you can sell sponsored emails, which function just like sponsored content what on your blog
- Good discussion and guide to email ads on the GetResponse blog
- Monetize Pros’ guide to email monetization
6. Inline Text Ads
Inline text ads are ads that essentially look like links–or, rather, they are links. They turn words on your blog into hyperlinks that are also ads. If you’ve heard of one inline text ad network, it’s probably Infolinks, but there are plenty out there.
If you’re going to get serious about earning advertising revenue, you should definitely look into platforms that help you optimize everything about your ads automatically. Most people who use them see pretty substantial increases in their earnings. Here are the two most popular platforms:
PART 2: Affiliate Marketing
Because all affiliate programs work in essentially the same way, I want to approach this module a little bit differently. Rather than talking about different kinds of affiliate programs, I want to talk about a couple of different angles people take to make money with them.
Product Reviews & Roundups
Product reviews and roundups = the typical “best…” and “…review” content most authority affiliate sites publish.
Most of you here know I’m talking about.
Product reviews and roundups are the bread and butter of most authority sites whose primary traffic acquisition strategy is SEO.
It works because these keywords are often low competition and capture visitors with strong buying intent.
We’ve all probably seen about a million examples of sites using product reviews and roundups to make money with affiliate programs, but here is one of my current favorites.
This is Runnerclick.com.
I love Runner Click because it goes so far beyond the typical affiliate site even though they use the same old affiliate tactics–the one we are talking about in this section: product review roundups.
Mostly, they focus on individual product reviews.
But they also do extensive product roundups.
What I really like about the site though, is that they have clearly invested lots of money in incredible design and a fantastic user experience. And it’s paying off for them big time: they generate about half a million visitors each month, and the site is nearly all affiliate content. In other words, they are banking.
- Our guide to keyword research
- Our review of popular keyword tools
- Our guide to writing product reviews that convert
- 21 Real Life Examples Of Successful Affiliate Marketing Websites In 2020
- The 72 Best Affiliate Programs & Networks For Bloggers In 2020
- List Of The Best Niches For Affiliate Marketing In 2020
- Thrive Architect (read the review) or Elementor (read the review) for nice looking reviews
Tools & Platforms Mentioned
Presales content = writing content about a particular problem that could be solved with a product as a way of warming an audience up and then presenting the product.
In other words, this sort of content acts like a native ad (except, of course, it’s not paid for by an advertiser; rather, you are publishing it to push people to an affiliate offer).
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry; I’m just going to jump straight into the example.
This is another one of my favorite authority sites: The Penny Hoarder.
And The Penny Hoarder is really good at pushing people to affiliate offers by using presales content — highly useful content that essentially functions like a native ad.
Check this one out:
There’s no question this article is highly useful, and the information is very, very good. Anybody reading this will be able to learn something about how to find the credit report.
If, after reading this, you want to find your credit report, The Penny Hoarder provides you with links to do so inside of the article.
And, if you haven’t figured it out yet, these links are affiliate links that go to credit report sites.
This recounting can work well because you are really and truly helping your audience solve a problem. People do need to know how to find and use their credit report. This article does solve that problem. And the product it offers people is actually a good part of the overall solution.
Because this type of content functions so similarly to a native ad, the most useful resources are probably native ad copywriting guides.
- CopyMonk’s Guide to writing your first native ad
- 12 examples of good native ads on Copyblogger
- How to make native ads go viral by BuzzFeed
- Our guide on building blog posts that sell
Tools & Platforms Mentioned
Authority + Recommendations
Authority + recommendations = being somebody people want to listen to and simply making recommendations about products you like.
This isn’t necessarily something everyone can do. The first and most important prerequisite is that you have a strong personal brand with loyal followers who trust you.
That is extremely difficult to do for anyone (but especially for the typical basement-dwelling authority site builder).
That said, if you can develop the type of authority that encourages people to take your recommendations to heart just because you are using a product, it’s a very powerful way to leverage affiliate programs.
This is going to be the only example in this article that’s not a blog, but I really think it’s one of the best examples that I could find of the power of a recommendation coming from somebody who has a lot real influence.
I’m talking about Casey Neistat.
If you don’t know who he is, Casey Neistat is one of the most popular vloggers on YouTube. As of this writing he’s got 7.5 million subscribers, and his videos regularly generate millions of views.
He mostly just blogs about his life, and people love him.
One of the things Casey does is ride around New York on an electric skateboard called the Boosted Board. Casey loves his Boosted Board. He takes it everywhere.
So, when a company sent him a cheap, obvious ripoff and asked him to review it, you can imagine his reaction.
Honestly, Casey was a lot more fair than I probably would have been, and I do think he tried his best to provide an unbiased review.
But he still burned the living sh*t out of them in a video that garnered about 3 million views.
He also link to to the Boosted Board using an Amazon affiliate link in the description.
Not only did he trash some crappy ripoff company, but he probably made a hell of a lot of money from that Amazon affiliate link.
- Get famous.
- In lieu of being famous, invest heavily in your personal brand.
- Spend time connecting with your audience and solving their problems.
- Make recommendations that will really work for them.
- Accumulate trust over time.
- Keep making good recommendations.
Yes, I know. Lead generation (lead gen) isn’t technically the same thing as an affiliate program, but in my mind, it’s pretty close and fit here nicely.
Lead gen = capturing and selling leads to either individual companies or lead aggregating firms.
As a business model, lead generation is older than the internet. Businesses have always been willing to pay for leads.
The internet, however, has given businesses a way to tap into huge pools of warm leads–people who have already expressed interest in a product and provided their information, which means they’re typically a lot further along in the buying cycle than a cold lead might be.
And they’re willing to pay quite a bit for them.
As publishers, we can generate warm leads by attracting highly targeted traffic that might be interested in the product advertisers are offering.
This may surprise you, but I spent three whole years writing for a website that does this on a massive scale.
This is Learn.org.
I worked as a writer for them for a good chunk of my early career. As an employer, they sucked on a cosmic scale, but as a revenue-generating authority site, they are wildly successful.
The company has changed a lot since I was there, but when I was, the primary revenue engine was lead generation for education programs.
They do other stuff now, but lead gen still seems to be at the core of their business. The basic model is: publish tons of content on various degree programs and capture leads for those kinds of programs.
They’ve built a whole search engine thingy around it.
When you land on an article about, say, associate’s business degrees, you’ll see a search box in the top left corner.
If you click on that, you’ll be taken to a list of their lead gen partners, where you can select one.
And if you “request info,” you come to a screen where you can enter your information, usually after some kind of quiz about your education and career goals.
This works spectacularly well for them.
When I was there, they employed hundreds of writers. They have since developed a lot of their own products, have ridden out massive Google penalties, and have completely rebranded.
Other Affiliate Tactics
Similar to advertising, there are a few affiliate tactics I still haven’t tried (and there are also a few that are just difficult to show with screenshots and examples), so I listed them here along with a brief explanation of some resources for each.
1. Email Affiliate Marketing
If you’re building an email list, you’ll probably find at least a couple of affiliate offers to send to your subscribers. You just have to be careful about the terms of service for both your email provider and the affiliate programs you are using.
- Short but good list of ways to monetize email with affiliate offers
- ClickBank’s do’s and don’ts of marketing affiliate products via email
- 20 Promo emails to our list in 30 days, what happened
2. Socially Driven/Viral/Fun Affiliate Blogs
This is a really cool idea that I’ve secretly wanted to try for a long time. I’m talking about blogs like ThisIsWhyImBroke.com, an affiliate blog that is just so damn fun people visit it on their own (most of their traffic is from direct sources). There are plenty of those out there who are generating loads of social and/or viral traffic. Here are a few for inspiration + a few more resources.
PART 3: Products
Physical products = eCommerce stores (at least for us today).
Of all the methods on this list, I’d say this is among the most resource-intensive. You have to find suppliers and establish relationships. You have to order or create prototypes. You have to set up the store on your blog. And so on. It’s a lot of work.
Perhaps that’s why, in my research, I couldn’t find many examples of authority sites who had added eCommerce stores. There were plenty of sites selling one or two products. And, of course, there were plenty of eCommerce sites using half-assed blogs to do a bit of marketing. But not many real authority sites who had leveraged their traffic into a store.
But if you get it working, the payoff can be huge. Why?
Because the biggest asset authority sites have is, well, authority. They have an audience. They have size. They have media. They can be their own influencer.
If you want to see what this looks like, here’s one of my favorite examples.
Example: Dr. Axe
We love Dr. Axe around here.
They’re brilliant marketers and brilliant authority site builders. What we drool over most, though, is the way in which they leverage their audience to sell products.
If you didn’t know, draxe.com is one of the biggest authority sites in the health space–big enough that Dr. Axe has been on TV shows. They are a massive site with millions of visitors per month.
They write about pretty much anything at all related to health: from nutrition to exercise to supplements, to leaky gut, to aging. Really, everything.
This (plus the ridiculous age and power of their brand/domain) generates loads of targeted traffic from Google.
So they’ve got millions of targeted visitors coming to their site from Google, and they have a store. How do they connect the two?
Well, they essentially promote their products and nothing else.
No affiliate offers. No ads.
I think it’s important to note that this is essentially the opposite of what we do. They don’t create “revenue stacks.” Instead, they use their authority to push every ounce of their traffic to their store.
…and they do it in like a billion ways:
- Direct links
- Email marketing
- Banner ads to their own store
I don’t know how much they make, but if I was going to guess, I’d guess they were making a metric boatload of money.
- Look at your best selling physical affiliate products.
- Contact suppliers to make a dropshipping deal (start with Alibaba).
- Set up a store using a second install of WordPress in either subdomain or subfolder + either Shopify or WooCommerce.
- Build out the pages in the store.
- Set up a dedicated customer service email and maybe even hire a customer service company.
- Create as many entry points to your store as you can (internal links, navigation, email funnels, retargeting, etc.).
- Ecommerce Fuel: probably the best blog for this kind of thing
- Shopify’s guide to finding suppliers
- SaleHoo: a dropshipping supplier directory
- Shopify’s guide to integrating with WordPress
- WooCommerce (has always worked with WordPress)
- Oberlo (an AliExpress fulfillment solution)
Tools & Platforms Mentioned
Courses = any kind of training delivered in a digital format that your users have to pay for.
I probably don’t have to tell you that courses are all the rage in the internet marketing community. You probably see ads for them all the time in your Facebook feed, and you may have even bought one of our courses.
When done right, I think courses are one of the coolest ways to monetize a website. I can tell you from first-hand experience: there’s no cooler feeling than sharing all of your knowledge on a topic with a bunch of people who actively want it.
Anecdotally, and in my own experience, courses are much less common outside of the internet marketing community, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
In fact, there are some massive authority sites who monetize this way. Here’s one of my favorites.
Body Green is a really, really big site that a lot of you probably already know. I’ve admired them for a long time, so it was cool to see them start monetizing by developing their own amazing courses.
I’m sure there are multiple entry points to the sales pages for the courses, but after poking around for awhile I honestly couldn’t find any (although I am almost positive I have seen blog posts promoting relevant courses in the past), so I think they mostly drive people to the courses through links in the navigation.
And when you get there, you can see a huge selection of courses that would clearly be relevant to anybody reading Mind Body Green.
Courses range from $19 to $100.
One of the things that makes these courses, in particular, so cool is that they are created by actual experts in the field. Obviously, not everybody has the resources to hire “real” experts, but it certainly sets MBG apart (and allows them to charge $100 for a 3-hour course).
- Identify a problem you could help your reader solve with a course.
- Use a Google Form to ask your audience and validate the concept.
- Create the content of the course.
- Use something like a combination of Member Mouse and Thrive Apprentice to deliver it.
- Recruit affiliates to help you launch if you can.
- Launch your course to your readers (and your affiliates’ readers).
- Solid guide to creating and launching a course by Natalie Lussier
- Videofruit’s case study on their course launch
- Teachable’s guide to course launches for folks who already have audiences
- Foundr’s excellent guide on course creation
- Our podcast on our most recent course launch
- What Are The Best Online Course Platforms Of 2020
Tools & Platforms Mentioned
Non-Info Digital Products
Non-info digital products = digital products that aren’t strictly informational.
It can be anything, really. If you’re an artist, maybe it’s a digital painting. If you’re in the tiny home space, maybe it’s a set of detailed floorplans for a tiny house.
I mostly just mean digital goods that are not ebooks or courses.
One of my favorite examples of this is from my best friend Suzy’s site.
Suzy isn’t a site builder by trade. She’s a badass quilter who happens to have a website. She has a large and dedicated instagram following, she has appeared in quilting magazines, and she has even made quilts for televised car commercials.
In other words, she’s a boss at designing quilts, and her audience knows it. So when she offers some of her designs, they eat it up.
Here’s her store. She sells lots of stuff here, but her bread and butter is a digital good: quilt patterns.
If you don’t know anything about quilting, creating patterns requires a hell of a lot of work. Beyond that, it takes a hell of a lot of talent.
Not everyone can do it.
Suzy releases one new pattern each month and promotes it with her email list and social reach. She sells them for $7-$10.
I’ve been trying to get her to upsell a subscription to her whole library, but she’s a lazy bum (kidding!). Really, though, Suzy does have lots of opportunity to leverage her digital goods into other kinds of monetization.
- Figure out what problem you can solve with something digital.
- Poll your audience to validate the idea. You can use Google Forms.
- Make the thing (and make it really good).
- Set up a backend to take payments + deliver digital products (Sellfy and Instamojo are decent options).
- Launch it with your list, push notifications, and social channels.
- Put it into your autoresponder and/or other evergreen funnels.
Memberships = recurring subscriptions.
Memberships have been my unicorn for a long time.
We do memberships here, but I’ve never successfully launched a membership in a non-IM, B2C market. And I really want to.
Why? Because they can be profitable as hell and can generate massive recurring revenue.
If you’ve been involved in IM for more than a couple months, you probably know which example we’re about to discuss…
We’re talking about Digital Marketer’s flagship site: SurvivalLife.com
Survival Life has been around for a good long while, and according to the latest data I could find, it makes over $1 million every month.
A big chunk of that comes from the membership they offer.
FPA stands for Family Protection Association, which is how they position their membership.
Currently, the membership costs $19.95/mo and is mostly made up of courses; however, it also includes stuff like:
- A “welcome gift” (not sure what it is)
- Discounts at major retail chains
- An FPA card
- Exclusive content
Digital Marketer also has similar programs on some of their other sites.
Now, there is a lot we can learn from Digital Marketer’s memberships. It could be its own article. For now, though, it’s enough simply to know that they have them, that they are driven mostly by content, and that they work very well.
- Get your traffic and email funnels working.
- Decide what to offer in your membership (content or video courses, usually)
- Use something like MemberMouse or Memberful to set up the backend.
- Create sales pages that include FAQs & membership benefits.
- Launch the membership to your list.
Create an editorial calendar to keep content coming for members.
Kindle Books (Amazon)
Kindle books = eBooks sold on Amazon’s Kindle marketplace.
The strategy here is leveraging an audience to generate sales on the Amazon Kindle store.
Aside from making money directly, the major benefit of this strategy is that by driving continuous sales to your eBook, you can compete really well in the Amazon Kindle store algorithm (especially if your book has good reviews).
This is different from selling your own eBook (which has its own pros and cons), and, in fact, it’s impossible to do them at the same time, since it’s against Amazon’s terms of service to sell your book anywhere else.
In any case, there are very few authority sites adopting this monetization strategy as far as I can tell.
But there is one, and it’s run by a good friend of mine…
Example: Steve Scott
Steve runs Authority.pub, where he teaches people how to successfully self-publish Kindle books.
Steve’s been crushing it in the Kindle publishing game for a long time. He has a buttload of successful eBooks published on Amazon.
He specializes in productivity and self-improvement, and he leveraged his loyal Kindle readers to build a pretty impressive authority site called Develop Good Habits, and it’s no small site.
Steve does a lot of cool stuff on this site.
But the primary revenue engine of the site appears to be Kindle books, and he pushes his hundreds of thousands of visitors to his books in all kinds of ways.
For example, if you sign up to get the free eBook he offers in the sidebar (77 Good Habits to Live a Better Life), the thank you page invites you to check out his flagship book, Habit Stacking, on Amazon:
He also uses (very good) blog posts — and the resulting organic traffic — to promote relevant ebooks.
And he uses stuff like a HelloBar, which also links directly to his books on the Kindle store.
As far as I can tell, there are no ads and no affiliate offers on Steve’s site.
It’s all about the Kindle books.
Steve was nice enough to tell us more about how his authority site and Kindle books work together.
Steve Scott’s Note
My primary income model is through self-publishing books (eBook, print and audiobook). While most of the revenue is generated directly from the Amazon platform (in conjunction with two book marketing platforms), I try to supplement this income by running the authority website—DevelopGoodHabits.com (DGH).
On DGH, I target keyword phrases that relate to the topics of my books. My goal is to turn the casual web searcher into a single book buyer and ultimately into a “true fan” who will check out all my future books. The two vehicles I’m using to generate traffic back to DGH is through Search Engine Optimization and through my growing Pinterest account.
Currently, I’m creating mini email funnels on a handful of high traffic pages. The idea here is to provide a quality content through an autoresponder sequence and (hopefully) turn subscribers into a readers or buyers of the few affiliate products that I promote on the backend.
- Do niche and sub-niche research to validate book ideas.
- Write the book.
- Hire an editor and/or proofreader.
- Use software like Calibre to convert your book into Kindle format.
- Design a cover or hire someone to do it.
- Publish the book on Amazon.
- Set a free week period.
- Do a bunch of marketing and outreach to prep for your free week.
- “Launch” your book during its free week.
On-site eBooks = eBooks you sell on your site in the form of a digital download (usually a PDF).
This is a bit different from selling your eBooks on the Kindle marketplace in a couple of ways.
The first and most important difference is that you don’t have access to the massive buying power of the Kindle marketplace.
Because you are selling the product on your own site, you have a lot more latitude to create a good, well-optimized sales funnel that can really push both the ebook and any other upsells or downsells you want.
One of the easiest examples of selling an ebook on your own site is the ebook we sell on our flagship site: Health Ambition.
If you’ve been a fan of ours for a while, you might remember the podcast we did on it: How We Transformed A Successful Blog Post Into $2,500/Month Passive Income.
Here’s the quick and dirty version of that podcast.
We had an article that was performing exceptionally well (on juicing), so we created an ebook on that topic, published about 20 more posts on that topic, and created a sales funnel to push people from those blog posts to the sales page that was selling the ebook.
…and at the bottom…
$2,500 in completely passive income.
We aren’t the only blog who monetizes this way, of course. In fact, there are some pretty huge Authority sites who monetize by selling their own ebooks.
One of my all-time favorite authority sites, BulletProof.com, monetizes this way. Bullet Proof, if you didn’t know, is all about optimizing your performance as a human being — everything from boosting your productivity to increasing the efficiency of your brain.
S0 it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that this is the book they sell.
- Use Google Analytics to identify which topics attract the most traffic.
- Plan your ebook on that topic, or hire an editor or ghostwriter to help you.
- Write the book.
- Hire a designer to make the PDF look amazing.
- Use something like Thrive or Elementor to build a simple sales page.
- Use something like Active Campaign to build a simple email funnel.
- Use something like Thrive Leads to start capturing leads and pushing people to your ebook.
If you’re involved with internet marketing and you don’t know what Amazon FBA is by now, you must be living under a rock.
Amazon FBA = Amazon’s program that allows people to sell products on the Amazon store and use Amazon’s own distribution chain to get products to their customers.
Most of the people doing Amazon FBA aren’t building websites. They’re focusing exclusively on the Amazon store.
A few smart people, though, have realized that if you combine the authority site model with the FBA model, you can generate even more sales on Amazon, boost rankings in their algorithm, and leverage all the other benefits of an authority site.
There is one tiny problem though…
As the Amazon FBA program has become more and more popular (i.e bloated with sellers), it’s also become so intensely cutthroat (people undercutting prices, ripping off marketing copy, etc.), that people almost never share their businesses publicly, making it incredibly hard to find examples.
I can tell you that I helped build a couple of sites that were created specifically to support Amazon FBA products, and those sites (and products) have done very well.
I did manage to find some examples.
Here’s one site called Lift.net.
It’s not a massive authority site, but, according to SimilarWeb, it gets about 35,000 visitors per month. They also sell stuff on Amazon.
They also seem to be selling products in an on-site store.
Here’s one more: Fitness Republic.
This is a slightly bigger authority sites that pulls in around 55,000 visits per month.
They also sell stuff on Amazon (mostly dumbbells and dumbbell sets).
- Use your Amazon Associate dashboard to see which products are your best sellers.
- Search Alibaba to find suppliers and analyze cost.
- Negotiate with suppliers.
- Create your seller account.
- Use something like Product Photography to get product pictures taken.
- Create your product pages.
- Go live.
- Use something like Tomoson to get real product reviews.
SaaS = software as a service.
There are lots of authority sites out there. And there are lots of SaaS products out there. But there are very, very few authority sites monetizing with SaaS products.
I think it’s mostly because both of those things require quite a bit of time.
However, when authority sites do monetize this way, the rewards can be absolutely massive.
In my research, I didn’t find any authority sites using this tactic outside of internet marketing, so we’re going to use an oldie but a goodie for our example.
Remember this guy?
This is Spencer Haws’s site, Niche Pursuits (an old version of it).
Niche Pursuits has been Spencer’s online marketing blog for several years now, and it’s mostly been a place for him to simply chronicle his online business ventures.
As he began to build an audience, Spencer realized that there was a huge demand in the market for good keyword research software that was not being filled adequately by pretty much anyone else.
So, he created Long Tail Pro, which sold spectacularly well and allowed him to exit nicely several years later.
- Find a problem in your market that can be solved with software.
- Validate it by testing a minimum viable product or surveying your audience.
- Find a developer to create your software (and don’t hire a cheap one).
- Set up a customer service portal way before launch using something like Intercomm.
- Recruit affiliates by reaching out to blogs in your niche.
- Set up an ad campaign if you know how.
- Launch that bad boy.
Events = actual, physical events that people pay money to attend.
Events are kind of tricky, but if you can pull them off, they can be massively lucrative and can position you as one of the foremost authorities in your field.
The reason events are so insanely profitable is usually that you can sell booth space to vendors (i.e. allow vendors to set up little booths to talk to customers as if they are attending a conference).
Clearly, it’s not within the resources of most authority sites, but if you have the audience and the connections, it certainly can work.
In fact, when I was working as an ad salesman at the little medical magazine I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this article, the thing that earned them the most money by far was an annual conference where they sold booth space to vendors.
For this example, we can use one that I have actually been to myself: Digital Marketer’s Traffic & Conversion Summit.
Digital Marker started essentially as an internet marketing blog just like we are. They, of course, have lots of different product offerings, and they have for a long time.
But if I was going to guess, I’d say the thing that makes them the most money (aside from their huge portfolio of sites) is their conference.
When I attended, tickets were thousands of dollars, and there were thousands of people at the conference, so the math is pretty impressive.
Of course, it’s extremely difficult to do this unless, like Digital Marketer, you have a huge, loyal audience as well as connections with lots of vendors.
- Validate the idea with your audience and vendors.
- Plan the conference, line up speakers, etc.
- Hire an event planning company to help set everything up.
- Hire a cold calling specialist or a sales company to book vendors.
- Maybe even hire an accounting service to handle the large amounts of money.
- Host the conference.
Other Product Monetization Tactics
Of course, there are as many ways to sell things on the internet as there are websites. Here are a few more that I don’t have much experience with and couldn’t find much good data on, but that could be good for the right authority site.
I’ve also always loved the idea of creating and selling merchandise. My gut tells me it won’t work with every site, but it probably works fantastically in passion or lifestyle niches. If you want to give it a whirl, here are a few services that allow you to create and sell merchandise on demand (i.e. you have to keep any inventory).
2. Selling a Single Physical Product
This is just different enough for me not to lump it in with eCommerce in general. There are a few brands–usually those with big audiences–who create and sell single physical products. They usually create lots of content around the problem their product solves. When it works, though, it’s possible to build a single product into an ultra-popular brand of its own. Here’s one of my favorite examples:
PART 4: Services
Selling “actual services” = providing paid services outside of consulting and coaching.
These can really be anything, but they are probably going to be most common in the more professional spaces on blogs run by actual experts in their field (or blogs that have access to experts).
One of the purest examples I found of an authority site marketing actual services is a site called Dietitian Cassie, an authority site that attracts about 34,000 visitors per month.
Cassie, the owner, blogs about all kinds of stuff related to health and nutrition, which is mostly where her traffic comes from.
She monetizes her blog in a lot of different ways, but one of the primary ways seems to be offering dietitian services to her users.
This won’t work in every niche, of course, because often times, especially for independent site builders whose primary skill is building websites, there just may not be any viable services to offer.
However, if you are an expert in your niche, offering services similar to how Cassie does can be pretty lucrative.
- Position yourself as the expert on your site.
- Develop your personal brand.
- Develop a services package.
- Use your site and email list to generate sales.
- Perform the service.
- Use something like Thrive Ovation to automate testimonials.
- Use something like Active Campaign to setup automated email sequences to ask for referrals.
Consulting = selling your knowledge on a topic.
Consulting is usually a little bit more niche-dependent than other types of services just because people don’t need consultants for everything. Suppose you have a kitchen appliance blog, for example; people don’t need to kitchen appliance consultants.
Likewise, it’s often a lot easier to sell consulting in B2B spaces than it is in B2C spaces.
Still, this is a monetization tactic that can definitely work if you are in the right space.
For this example, I’m going to use a friend of mine: Kate Ahl.
Kate was recently on our podcast and runs Simple Pin Media, a blog/business all about Pinterest marketing. She’s really good at it, and her client case studies mostly speak for themselves.
Kate’s business offers several different products, including consulting.
If you buy a session, Kate sits down with you and teaches you about Pinterest, helping you set up your own a plan of attack.
I’m not sure how much revenue it drives overall, but I can tell you that I personally have bought and paid for one of Kate’s consulting packages, so it’s at least worked on me!
- Position yourself as the expert on your site.
- Develop your personal brand and market your expertise on your site.
- Decide what consulting you could provide.
- Use your blog and email list to sell consulting sessions.
- Use something like Appointment Booking Calendar to book sessions.
- Use something like Yondo to host consulting calls.
Coaching = helping someone achieve a specific goal by being a one-on-one mentor.
Coaching is like consulting on steroids.
Rather than hosting a short consulting call to share a bit of knowledge, coaches are there to hold a client’s hand through the entire process to help them achieve a goal.
Coaching might include a bunch of consulting calls, but also might include other stuff, like videos or blueprints or diet plans.
This example is from one of my favorite authority sides of all time: Muscle for Life.
Muscle for Life is run by a guy named Mike Matthews, who, in this sea of crappy fitness faux-experts, is, in my view, as shining beacon of real knowledge.
And people really really respond to the depth of his expertise, making it easy for him to offer coaching packages like this one.
If you sign up, get personal coach who will work with you to develop a diet and nutrition plan to help you lose weight and/or gain muscle.
As of this writing, coaching packages cost $1,997.
It is worth noting here that Mike does not do all the coaching himself; he has a team of coaches who follow his methods that also help his clients; however, for most of us running smaller operations, it’s probably not feasible to hire armies of coaches. We will probably have to do the coaching ourselves.
- Position yourself as the expert on your site.
- Develop your personal brand and market your expertise on your site.
- Use something like a combination of Thrive Apprentice and Yondo to develop a coaching plan that helps people achieve a specific objective.
- Use your blog and email list to sell coaching sessions.
A lot of the resources in the previous two sections will work for coaching, too, so I figured I would just provide a few more optional tools here.
Tools & Platforms Mentioned
Speaking gigs = anytime an organization pays you to speak on the topic you know about.
Typically, speaking gigs require a perception of extreme expertise. If people don’t think you are an expert, there’s really no way they will pay you to come speak at a conference (or whatever).
But if you are an expert, speaking gigs can be fun and can pay pretty well. There are plenty of people who do this in the internet marketing and business spaces, but I want to look at an example from someone a little bit closer to our level…
As we discussed earlier in this article, my friend Suzy is a quilting badass.
She is a real expert, and people in her field admire her greatly. So it really doesn’t surprise anybody when she is invited to speak.
In most cases, Suzy’s speaking gigs take the form of quilting workshops like this one. Here’s Suzy explaining how these gigs come about and how much she makes from them.
After publishing quilt patterns in my online shop and promoting them on my blog I have received multiple offers from fabric stores and quilt groups around the country asking me to teach workshops.
I’ve only recently started saying yes to speaking gigs, since I remain very busy continuing to blog and write new patterns. My most recent workshop was tons of fun and filled with laughing, learning and overall fabric-loving.
The shop owner and I decided to split the cost of student sign-ups 60/40 where I received 60%. After one week of open registration the class sold out, making me think I should have charged more. Including travel and lodging fees I made $1,500 from one day of teaching. Not bad for a first time!
- Establish yourself as an expert in your field.
- Create a “Hire Me” page on your site.
- Connect a simple contact form like Ninja Forms to a dedicated speaking-gigs email address.
- Negotiate with people you want to hire you.
- Travel, speak, and ask for another gig.
PART 5: Misc
And now we have the misfits — all the monetization tactics that didn’t really fit anywhere else but that I wanted to cover briefly because they can work. You can find people out there crushing it with any one of these.
1. Sell Your Site
Obviously, you can make money from your website by selling it. I’m not sure if it’s strictly fair to call this monetization, but it is certainly a way to make money. If you want to go down this road, here are some of the most popular marketplaces and brokers.
- Flippa (for small sites)
- Empire Flippers (small-large sites)
- FE International (medium-large sites)
- Latonas (medium-large sites)
If you have a site people really love, it’s also possible to take donations. I haven’t experimented much with this myself, but my gut tells me it probably won’t work unless you have a super-loyal audience. That said, I do see some sites who monetize this way consistently.
- Shut Up & Sit Down’s donation page
- The other side of the argument: why asking for donations might hurt your blog
Patreon is similar to donations, but it isn’t exactly the same. With Patreon, users agree to donate on a recurring basis and typically also get tiered rewards similar to what you would get on Kickstarter.
Patreon is incredibly popular with content creators on platforms like YouTube, but I don’t see much on blogs. I’m listing it here because as far as I can tell, it’s completely untested, but also because I could see it making money on a blog that publishes regular content that people really enjoy (especially a blog was something like a podcast or video series).
- Podcaster’s Group Therapy discussion about monetizing with Patreon
- Vlog Nation’s guide to monetizing with Patreon
4. Writing for Other Blogs
Finally, if you’ve built up expertise on your own blog, it’s possible to leverage the expertise into high-paying writing gigs on other websites–or (and I’ve actually done this) to use the awesome stuff you’ve written on your own blog as experience to get an actual job.
Again, not monetization in the strictest sense, but certainly a way to leverage your blog and make money.
Information Overload! What Do We DO with All This?
Welp. Sorry about that.
It’s not everyday I dump 15,000 words on you guys. But monetization is a vitally important topic that we as independent site builders do not discuss enough.
We all know that the most difficult part about making a living with our authority sites is traffic generation.
If we can master monetization…
…we can make more money with the same traffic. Yes, more traffic is always better, and I don’t plan on stopping my inexhaustible quest for that untamable traffic hockey-stick anytime soon.
I’m just saying: I’d rather make $100 from every thousand visitors than $10. In other words, monetization is a skill, and it’s vitally important.
So what should you do? How should you monetize? Which tactics should you pursue?
I do have an opinion on this, but I wanted to give an opportunity for someone to chime in whose data and information I used extensively in my research (and whose blog I’ve come to love in the course of writing this post).
Here’s a quote from the guys at MonetizePros.com:
Monetization depends on your niche and audience. If your site targets a very small niche market, usually affiliate marketing is the best monetization source. There are usually complementary products that are useful to these users that are interested in your niche. This type of audience tends to have higher intent to become a lead or purchase a product. Therefore, conversions will be higher for smaller niches.
If your site has a mass market appeal like entertainment, online classifieds, news or fitness, then advertising is typically the best fit monetization source. Display and native advertising can only make serious revenue when publishers are getting millions of pageviews though. It takes a while to get to that point, but once a publisher does, they can experience true passive income (Assuming they have a loyal audience and/or significant organic traffic).
If you have a website with mass market appeal and significant traffic, make sure you have a sophisticated ad optimization strategy that does not leave money on the table. Just running AdSense is not an ad optimization strategy. Implementing an ad server like DoubleClick for Publishers, running Google Ad Exchange and additional ad technology like header bidding is the type of ad optimization strategy that would maximize a publisher’s ad revenue return from their audience.
For the most part, I agree.
Still, as I grow as a site builder, my philosophy has shifted away from leaning on just one thing or just a few things that work and more towards what we discussed in the beginning of this piece: stacking revenue.
It seems to me that the quickest way to “real” money — to make “big boy” money — is by combining lots of little monetization strategies into one massive revenue stack.
Maybe I’m overly ambitious. Maybe I’m naïve. Or maybe I’m just dumb. I’m just one guy after all.
I think you could also make a strong argument for mastering just one tactic. There are plenty of blogs that do it. One of the biggest and most notable affiliate sites in existence — the blog that shall not be named (kidding, it’s The Wire Cutter) — monetized with affiliate links only (if I’m not mistaken) and, as we all know, that site was sold to the New York Times for $30 million. Other massive affiliate sites, like The Penny Hoarder, have also opted to monetize (as far as I can tell) with affiliate offers only.
So tell me what you think.
How do you monetize your website? Which monetization tactics here do you not use but want to try? What did I miss? Are there any sites out there monetizing in completely creative ways I didn’t even think about?
Let me know in the comments below!