Humans tend to overcomplicate things and making money is certainly on top of the list. But it’s not rocket science. Generally, you have two options: build your business or work for someone else’s business. Either you create value or help someone else create value. Those two paths summarize my early years. When I was in my teens and twenties, I alternated between running my own businesses and helping someone else run theirs.
Blogging is a different beast. I started mine completely by accident. Mostly out of sheer curiosity and boredom. It was sometime in 2009, and I was living in a small apartment in Rio de Janeiro’s colorful Copacabana neighborhood. I was living alone. I was lonely and bored. Naturally, I figured sharing my thoughts on the Internet would help me connect who were in a similar situation. Making money with my blog was the absolute last thing on my mind.
Over the years, I kept working on these two interests in parallel. I kept writing about my experiences in Brazil. I also kept building different businesses. Gradually, both things started to grow. My blog started to attract more and more readership. My businesses started to generate more money.
Then, one day, something unexpected happened. I had just returned back to my apartment after a morning swim in the Atlantic Ocean. I opened my laptop and loaded my favorite email client. There was an email waiting for me from an unrecognized sender.
The email was short and straight to the point.
“Hi James, I really enjoy your blog. I’d love to schedule a call with you over Skype. I will pay you for your time.”
I thought it over and agreed. Moments later, I received the payment. Few days later, I advised him on a specific issue he was having. (We quickly became good friends and still keep in regular contact after all these years.)
“That was interesting,” I remember thinking myself. “Someone agreed to pay me for my words and thoughts, for my bits and zeroes that I had plastered all over the Internet.”
“I finally monetized my blog,” I thought to myself.
I was wrong. There was no moment. There was no epiphany. Nothing really happened.
What I didn’t realize is that I didn’t just start ”monetizing” my blog the moment someone paid for my services. I was ”monetizing” my blog the entire time. While I wasn’t being paid directly, I was being paid in another commodity: attention. People discovered my content and found it useful enough to continue reading instead of doing something else with their time.
Attention is a much more important commodity than money. If you can capture someone’s attention, money will soon follow.
The whole notion of monetizing anything is misguided. You don’t “monetize” anything—you either provide value or you don’t. A table that I’m typing this article on right now provides me with value. So is the laptop that helps me craft my thoughts and convert them into zeroes and ones so that I can shuttle them onto the Internet for all of you to see. Then there’s my apartment that’s keeping me warm and safe from all the predators so that I can live long enough to hit the “Publish” button.
All of these things provide value. That’s why I purchased them and own them. That’s why the person or company who created these products or services are duly rewarded with my money.
Of course, the things I mentioned above are all physical products. Blogs are not. They are digital products. And, as it happens to be, words and thoughts are much more powerful than the chair, the table or even my apartment.
Blogs are personal communication mediums. And communication mediums are an extremely powerful way to connect with people. Instead of having some end product that you can touch and feel, words and thoughts are the atoms, the building blocks of life. They can influence emotions and get people to think in a radically different way.
That’s because humans are irrational and emotional beings so thoughts, feelings and ideas always come first. Physical products evolve later.
Writing is like having your own virtual factory from which you can produce anything in the world. If you write about travel, you take the reader on a journey to some distant and mysterious land. If you write about productivity, you help the reader master their time and achieve more. If you write about different tables and how each can help become more creative or more productive, you help the reader choose the right one for their unique situation.
Before I went to Bali for the first time last year, I had no idea where it even was (pretty embarrassing for a geography nut like myself). I had no idea that it was a true tropical paradise on earth. I had no idea that it would be one of the most amazing places in the world to visit and live.
So, I immediately did what I always do when I don’t understand something: I began educating myself. I found a couple of good Bali blogs. I started learning more about this region of the world.
Most importantly, I studied how this region of the world can benefit me, and what I was looking for in a vacation destination. There are plenty of amazing places in the world. But that doesn’t mean I’d like to go to Siberia, Tierra del Fuego or the Galapagos Islands. While all of them are interesting in their own right, I had just spent a freezing winter in Eastern Europe and the only thing on my mind was sun and relaxation. Siberia was out. Tierra del Fuego was out. Galapagos islands, maybe next year. Bali was the overwhelming winner.
Two days later, I bought a one-way ticket to Bali. Two weeks later, I had rented a scooter and was busy exploring this amazing island. I stayed for an entire three months and can’t wait to go back. None of that would’ve happened if someone didn’t educate me on this amazing country by helping me see how it was the perfect solution to the winter dread I was experiencing through the use of their crafty use of words on their blog.
David Ogilvy, one of the most successful copyrighters and advertisers, once said that if you can write a good copy, you can print money. I couldn’t agree more. I would even take it a step further and say that if you can write anything well, you’re monetizing your very own words.
Naturally, when people think about “monetizing” their blog, they start thinking about all the products they can create, whether it’s some eBook, a course, or something else. That’s the obvious path because people just want answers handed to them on a silver platter.
Unfortunately, they’re missing the forest from the trees. It doesn’t matter what “premium” product you create, whether it takes the form of a book, video or a workshop. Everyone can do that. You can outsource book publishing and course creation to some guy in Bangladesh or Jakarta. You can outsource software creation to some guy in Kiev or Minsk. You can outsource article writing on any topic under the sun to anyone in the world who can stitch two English words together. The problem is that if everyone can do it—and they can—the end result becomes a commodity. Commodities aren’t worth much.
But you can’t outsource thoughts and ideas. You can’t outsource original value. You can’t outsource your experience of living in another country while struggling to learn the local language in order to integrate yourself into the confusing culture. You can’t outsource failing for the twelfth time and finally succeeding on the thirteenth with a business that finally gets traction. You can’t outsource helping someone overcome procrastination and laziness so they can finish their first book, the one they’ve been putting off for twenty years. You can’t outsource helping someone quit their shitty 9-5 job and allow them to discover true freedom. You can’t source the pain, the suffering, the triumph, the jubilation. You can’t outsource making a person feel one way one moment and then something completely different another moment.
Monetizing products is about demonstrating how they will benefit someone. Monetizing words is about making someone feel something. Whether it’s getting someone to buy a one-way ticket to Bali, or getting someone off Facebook so they can finish an important task first. The person must impact someone. They must be able to connect to those words in a profound and meaningful way. They must want to take action.
If you can’t do that, then none of that matters. In that case, you might as well sell me a finished product that serves a specific purpose like a nice table or a comfortable chair, and let someone else’s words, thoughts and ideas inspire, motivate and ultimately affect me in ways I didn’t think were possible.