In a Twitter stream in 2014, the editor of Slate Magazine outlined 76 ways publishers in digital media and blogs can make money.
The stream went mini-viral in journalism & big publisher circles – the same circles that frequently talk about the death of journalism and publishing online.
But the thread wasn’t just relevant to big, global publishers trying to build their digital brands. The main point – that publishing is in a golden age with lots of money to be made with a little creativity – is as relevant to small publishing operations and blogs as it is to the New York Times.
Here’s my revised version of David Plotz’s 76 Ways To Make Money in Digital Media that anyone with a simple website, blog, or online magazine can implement.
I’ve edited it down to 64 ways by merging similar methods and removing ways that are limited to giant publishing brands.
In the olden days, pre-2010, there were a few basic ways to make money.
Funding from some source in the offline world
AKA you could publish as a hobby. Your offline sources of revenue would fund your online operations. This was common for organizations (member dues), newspapers (print revenue), etc. This model is still common, and has in some ways become more common as offline organizations look for a basic web presence.
Funding from company
The ones on the forefront of content marketing would pay bloggers as ambassadors. This still exists, but has also morphed into influencer-land.
Yup, these famously existed in the very early days. These still exist, but in much more varied forms. These are great if you have access to advertisers with budget and less concern for direct response. A former client of mine paid hundreds of dollars per month for a small mention on a website with a few hundred readers. But the client was a provider of multi-million dollar water filtration systems and the publisher was the #3 industry journal for wastewater operators.
Really bad subscription schemes
These were nearly impossible to set up, but I remember a lot of people doing some interesting things with locked or just password-protected content. If you are using WordPress, you can still hack this together with Easy Digital Downloads or even a PayPal Thank You page even though many providers like Memberful and Substack have sprung up to fill this void.
The whole idea of content marketing was alive even in the early days with companies like 37signals building their brand around a blog. You wrote content to generate leads for your actual business. This is still hugely viable if you have a business partner. It’s especially common in health or finance fields where a website will be funded 100% by a lead generation partnership with a doctor, lawyer, or financial firm.
You can still do old-school methods, but in 2020 forward, the sources of money for digital publishing and blogs are:
Funding from some rich person
If you’re rich in time or money, you can just create content. If you operate in the non-profit world or political world, this kind of funding is pretty mainstream. Even Vox has a series funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Even if you are small-time, you can scale this model down. In local non-profits or local news, there are absolutely funding models from rich people or the wealth of crowds. Think of it more on a Patreon-scale. Lots of people with a little disposable income instead of a single person.
Funding from some rich company that is making a long-shot bet
This approach is harder for small websites, blogs and publishers but it does happen, especially in industries that are rapidly growing. Every industry needs an ecosystem, and publishers play a big role. This process is happening right now in the cannabis industry. It is also happening in drones, cryptocurrency, and other fields.
Ads from real (i.e., not network) advertisers
Anyone can add a piece of HTML ad code to their site and offer ads for purchase. Plugins like OIO Publisher work really well.
Ad network ads
Self-serve advertising platforms are almost a dime a dozen. You can place ads from Media.net, OutBrain, or any number of alternative ad networks and more by just signing up and placing an ad snippet. If you run the JetPack plugin for WordPress, you can just enable the advertising option. You can sell contextual or native content ads.
AdSense ads from Google
The easiest ad platform of them all. Sign up at Google AdSense. Grab an ad code snippet. Place it on you site. Google will broker advertising on your website and give you revenue after they take their cut. Here’s a bunch of alternatives to AdSense.
Affiliate banner advertising
Sign up to an affiliate network like Commission Junction. Get a banner ad or link code. Place it on your website. It generates a banner or link ad. If people click it and buy, you get a referral fee. The key here is focus. Place the banner / link only on posts that have the attention that is relevant to the advertiser. Don’t give them free brand awareness, but send them highly-qualified customers.
Make the native ads yourself and get a production fee
This is similar to product placement. But you can sell a mention in a blog post to an advertiser and write it so that it flows with the piece. You still have to disclose the ad though (legally and ethically).
Build a microsite for the native content and get paid separately for that
If you have a large readership, many websites will create a subdomain or related site that focuses specifically on brands, coupons, deals, etc and get paid for it.
Subscription (no content unless you pay)
Paywall (some content, then you have to pay, à la the New York Times)
The higher quality membership plugins for WordPress have tons of options for setting roles. You can choose what to put behind the paywall and what to make free.
Micropayment (pay for each individual piece of content)
Membership (content is free, but bonus stuff—discounts, Easter eggs—for members)
You can do this in WordPress without a membership plugin. Just set the page with bonuses to Private and only give members the password. You can also use Memberful or Patreon here.
This can be tricky, but WordPress membership plugins allow you to define tons of user roles. Even if it’s not “tablet” – you can also make people pay for different format versions. Services like GumRoad make selling PDFs seamless.
Creating an entire app might be difficult for a small publisher. But if you know your audience well enough and are comfortable working with a developer, it can be lucrative. That’s what Nathan Barry did.
Tip jar (asking for support without perks)
Add a PayPal Donate button to your website. PayPal will provide the code to copy+paste. You can also do the same with Amazon Payments.
Yes, creating a Kindle Book is incredibly easy. Here’s a walkthrough to publishing a Kindle book with your blog content.
Sell swag and merchandise directly to readers
You can seamlessly add the WooCommerce plugin to WordPress to sell stuff.
Amazon Associates revenue
If you refer a customer to Amazon, they will pay you a cut of a sale. It’s also very easy to join and start using on your website.
Amazon Associates revenue where you assign stories about products in order to get the sales cut
Write about specific products and let readers click over to Amazon to buy from your website. This is a more focused version of putting Amazon ads on your website. This is what BuzzFeed has done at scale.
Sell your own merchandise but through a company that fulfills it and pays you a cut (e.g., Café Press)
Lead generation—send a reader who becomes a customer, get paid
This approach is similar to affiliate advertising where you don’t get paid for advertising a company, but do get paid if you send them a customer. There’s a lot of ways to set it up depending on the company. These programs work well for high dollar purchases like construction, finance and legal.
Syndicate stories to other digital publishers to run on their sites
This is less a way to make money as it is a way to get more readers to your website. You syndicate content to big publishers like BusinessInsider, HuffingtonPost, etc.
Syndicate stories to print publications
Freelance writers particularly will use their blog as a trial run (or a place to place reader incentives) before pitching the full story to a print publication…who will pay decent money for it.
Syndicate content for advertiser’s microsite
Basically a paid placement on your website for a brand.
Public events—ticket revenue
Yes, even small brands can sell tickets to meetups and events with a dedicated audience. Startups like EventBrite are making this approach simple. WordPress makes it easy to add EventBrite, as do other top website builders.
Public events—corporate sponsor revenue
Get businesses to sponsor an event for your readers.
Paid parties: Readers pay to socialize with you
Events as sales spiel—bring people in for content of event, then sell them something
Here you sell an experience to your readers, but make money on the backend or with an in person sales pitch. A real estate website might do a neighborhood tour and partner with real estate agents for example.
Business funds posts on a favorite subject
This approach is less paid placements and more of companies paying publishers to raise awareness of a certain problem or product line.
Mobile banner ads
Many approaches don’t work particularly well on mobile devices, so a publisher might make money one way with desktop users and run mobile ads for mobile users.
Mobile and tablet interstitials
Popup ads on mobile. There are tons of mobile ad networks that provide these. They do get “clicks” but keep in mind that I will not like you.
Video ads from real advertisers
Video is hard to produce. Many times a full video ad package deal works well for companies who want to advertise on YouTube…but don’t want to do it themselves.
YouTube video revenue share
Create video content and publish on YouTube to monetize with YouTube options.
Podcast ads—not host-read
Podcast ads, host-read, paid for click-through/sign ups
The approach here is to do affiliate type advertising on podcasts. You get paid referral fees for people who visit a URL that tracks their visit. If you hear a podcast ad that tells you to do to advertiserURL.com/podcastname – that’s what they are doing.
Podcast ads, host read, not paid for performance
Brand advertisers often want brand remembrance more than direct sales. They pay hosts a premium to read the ad which helps create positive associations with their brand. Here’s an example.
Cruises [or giant event] for readers
Basically a giant version of reader event. Do something huge. It’s a bonus if you can work out a deal for readers where you get a referral fee – e.g. you book a cruise which gives 30% off to your readers and gives you $100 for every ticket purchased.
Teach classes for readers
You can do these as live events or use a WordPress plugin (or just WordPress pages) to teach a course. You can use a variety of ways to allow people to pay for it from PayPal redirects to plugin payment integration. Teachable and a whole range of Learning Management Systems (LMS) have also come into this space.
These are video seminars that usually lead to a product pitch. The seminar offers a ton of useful, unique information and you get to pitch already-sold readers a product or service.
Sell photo archives both digitally and as print
This approach can go beyond just photos. Basically sell permanent versions of your content. This Instagrammer sells print photos for a living.
Publish physical books of your digital content
This path is very well-trodden. Create a popular blog and use it as leverage into a book deal.
Kindle singles and other e-books
Re-purpose your content into better formats. Kindle makes this easy, but even PDF can be useful.
Sell unusual books for non-Amazon publishers
Your audience might be interested in certain books that may or may not be available in a format or at all. You sell exclusivity. You can implement this with ecommerce function or even something simple like GumRoad.
Product placement—get paid for using products and reviewing them
Very straightforward. You can get started by joining a PR network or by emailing companies to alert them about an upcoming content series. Putting a media kit or special contact page also helps.
Sponsored tweets / social media
You can sell these as part of a product placement package or individually. There are networks that broker sponsored [social network].
Get paid to make Facebook posts on a particular subject
Ditto as sponsored tweets. You can use a broker or sell them as a PR package.
Ads in emails
Ads in emails can be great simply because people pay more attention to email than browsing a webpage. The Hustle has built a huge business off this tactic.
Kickstarter or Patreon fundraising (à la 99 Percent Invisible)
Build apps/websites for people
Your fans might want your expertise to help them apply your publishing lessons to their website.
Higher-end specialized product (e.g., Politico Pro)
This approach is less a membership site and more a premium information product. It’s a very common business model online (and offline to a degree). You create lots of useful free content and sell people on an expensive information product.
Targeted research for subscribers who pay a premium (e.g., BI Intelligence)
This approach is like hybrid-consulting. Your premium subscribers don’t get any content, but do get input on topics and research.
Create viral content for advertisers and charge for virality in a BuzzFeed-y manner
Brands pay you to help them reach audiences like yours.
Get people to sign up for an email list for an advertiser, as Upworthy does
Similar model to creating viral content, but more direct response and less brand awareness.
Sell your subscriber data
Sell your email lists
Sell access to archives
This model is also very interesting and fairly common. It’s fairly easy to implement with a WordPress plugin as well. I like how Mixergy implements it.
More than a tip jar—straight-up donations, à la Brainpickings and NPR
Get people to pay into that PayPal button! Brainpickings example.
If you have a really interesting audience, big companies will pay a lot of money for well-researched, customized presentations.
But wait! There’s always more. There are 2 key takeaways here:
- It starts with building an audience, not a plan to make money.
- Don’t let technical hurdles pre-empt your ideas on creating value for your audience and making money from the value you provide.
If you don’t have your own website – learn how to create a website powered by WordPress here.