If you’ve been around the “making money online” theme long enough (and that’s also why you’re reading this amazing blog), you’ve probably heard of the following quote at some point: “If you want to make money, don’t start a blog—build a business.”
There’s a lot of truth there. Blogging is a collection of articles, thoughts and ideas, and money is generally thought to be made as a result of doing something more “serious” like selling cars, tractors, or services that help others achieve things more effectively such as software. Words are too cheap and abundant to be somehow linked to directly making money.
Thus, when it comes to making money online, successful bloggers mostly leverage their blogs as a means to an end, instead of the end in itself. Mainly as a marketing platform to selling something else. For instance, almost every company—whether it sells cars, software or toys for kids—has a blog. The blog serves as its marketing/PR outlet, and communicates what the company is doing, which products it’s releasing, thus, directly and indirectly, contributing to selling the company’s products and increasing the company’s profits.
Even if you’re not selling anything specific, your blog still serves as a marketing outlet for yourself, your products, and, ultimately, your brand (you do have a brand, right?). To make money, you must sell something to someone else and the blog helps others discover what it is you’re selling. Otherwise, no one would even know that you exist.
There are also certain blogs that are products all by themselves. These are usually high-quality blogs with long, well-thought out articles. The types of articles that force you to think, to analyze and synthesize new ideas. The type of articles that you bookmark and return to, not once, but several times later. The type of articles that you know the author had spent days, weeks or even months crafting and refining.
These blogs less resemble a news site with rapidly decaying information, and more resemble a small book that can comfortably stand on its own two feet and occupy a space in your bookshelf. Being a voracious reader, these are the types of blogs I truly enjoy.
One of my favorite blogs is Joel on Software. In its heyday, it was one of the most popular blogs in software/technology areas. Although Joel, the author, no longer updates it, years ago, it was a truly celebrated event whenever a new article was published. Each article was monster-sized, something like a million words (ok, maybe closer to 4-5,000 words). Not only was it relatively long, but it was truly thought-provoking, exploring a specific idea (or sets of ideas) in exasperating detail. (Joel leveraged the audience he built from his blog to launch the super popular Stack Overflow site that’s now worth zillions of dollars).
Another blog I enjoy is a geopolitical and economics blog written by a Russian guy who’s living in America. He posts only once a week, so naturally, each post is as meticulously crafted as a fine Swiss watch. It goes without saying, that each article is like a mini book with thousands of carefully researched words. I know that whenever Wednesday rolls around and a new post drops on his blog, I always make sure to sit somewhere comfortable, make some tea and get ready to be elucidated in some profound way.
What all these high-quality blogs have in common is that their value is the writing. These blogs aren’t merely advertising/marketing mediums for a product or service. They’re not promoting some pdf that will teach you how to talk to women. It’s not some course on “day trading” that will set you back a cool $3,000. They’re not corporation blogs with a specific agenda. They’re also not newspaper blogs with a specific narrative.
In a world where most blogs are used as a medium to sell you something, it’s mind-bendingly difficult to understand that there’s absolutely nothing behind the writing, no ulterior motive, no get-rich-scheme course that you must sign up for. Essentially, they’re independent premium newspapers.
As someone who’s been blogging for a decade, I can tell you that writing an interesting and thought-provoking article is tough, thankless work. Not only must you come up with a new topic, dissect it and prove your point, but you must also do it day in and day out. Even if you see the article being published only once per week, you can bet that the author is toiling and feverishly writing and rewriting the article every single day until it’s just right.
I’m also someone who’s always thinking about making money, so one pressing question that I’ve been asking myself is how can these high-quality blogs make money? How can they build a business around nothing but quality thought-provoking articles? If they’re not affiliates for a $2,500 course on day-trading or drop-shipping, how they can make money?
One way is for the authors to write for newspapers and magazines. But then they would no longer be independent and would be beholden to a specific agenda or narrative.
So, if they choose to remain independent and write whatever the heck they want, how can they build a business from words alone?
A proven method to monetize information where this information itself is the added value is by writing books. In this case, books are the natural monetization option because a high quality book is really an extension of a high quality blog. The blog serves as a marketing vehicle for your ideas, ideas that, with some effort, can be quickly integrated into a book.
In fact, almost every author I’d already mentioned above is either selling an interesting book or two, or has a book in the works.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I know from experience that it takes some serious muscle to propel a book to success, something that only the highest-trafficked blogs can muster. Plus, it’s mostly the motivational/self-improvement books that regularly outsell non self-improvement books like the ones about politics or economics.
In other words, if you’re not directly helping people, it’ll be much harder to sell a product (or anything) than if you do. A “how to travel on $1/day” book will always outsell a travel memoir because the former is replete with benefits while the latter is some guy’s story. It’s basic marketing 101.
Paying for knowledge
The other day I decided to return to my favorite geopolitics/economics blog. The last time I visited the blog was a year ago mostly because my interest in geopolitics took a backseat to some more pressing issues. I typed the URL in my Safari browser and anxiously waited for the page the load. Once the blog loaded, I pulled up the latest post. It was all there, all 5,000-odd words of it.
The article loaded, but, strangely enough, only a part of the article was visible. In order to read the rest of it, I needed to click continue and then pay money. In fact, all the latest articles could only be accessed after paying. That meant, that, for as little as $1 per month, I could gain access to all the posts, all thanks to a service called Patreon. (I’ve recently configured my own Patreon here, but I’m yet unsure how I’ll use it.)
My initial reaction was “THIS IS ABSOLUTELY GENIUS!” This is absolutely the perfect monetization strategy in this particular instance. The blog’s value add is the writing, specifically a series of long, thoughtful and interesting articles. With a click of a button (or installation of a plugin), he put all his previous writing behind a pay wall. Seemingly overnight he went from zero dollars to at least thousand dollars per month (I’m estimating). This is money that he didn’t have before. Although he lives in America, that kind of money is more than enough to live very comfortably in many parts of the world.
Creating a pay wall around his entire content is a pure stroke of genius. It’s much better than circle jerking your visitors to some super expensive course or even a $7 ebook. Since his writing is good and thoughtful, it makes perfect sense to get people to pay money to access it. And, since he already had a tight community of readers (he’s been writing for a long time), his model is probably more effective per visitor when compared to a similar paywall from big publishing company like The New York Times.
I was also happy to see that he’s being rewarded for his work for two main reasons: 1) he won’t plaster his blog with cheap banner ads or low-quality ebook offers and, most importantly, 2) he now has a strong incentive (increasing monthly revenue) to continue writing quality stuff. This means his blog won’t disappear overnight because he realized that instead of spending many hours on quality content he decided to get a higher-paying job and become a software engineer that pays $150,000/yr.
Monetization for the common man
In my flagship course on digital entrepreneurship, I talk at length about the different ways of making money off your work. This process is called monetization. Monetization is one of those things that’s both easy and difficult to get right. It’s difficult when you don’t yet know the kind of value you are able to provide that the audience would pay for. But it becomes super easy once you know exactly what your value-add is.
Now, does anyone else still think that blogs aren’t a viable business model?
There was a time in my life in the not-too-distant past where I scoffed at the idea of paying someone a monthly fee in exchange for their thoughts on various subjects. The Internet has an almost unlimited amount of free content, so paying for something that’s essentially free sounded nothing less than absurd. I still laugh when people try to sell their services “for the price of a coffee”; coffee warrants its price because it costs money to create, whereas ideas and writing are simply emptying your brain onto the computer.
But then I realized two things. First, nobody does anything without some sort of a reward or incentive. They might do it in the short-term (because of the novelty factor), but they’ll never do it in the longer term, especially when they could be something else. To do anything long term, there needs to be a real, viable and visible reward.
That’s precisely why blogs that aren’t making decent money (because they don’t have a proper monetization strategy) ultimately fail. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen a decent blog with interesting content just fall by the wayside.
The second thing I realized is that I’d gladly pay a monthly fee in exchange for becoming a member of a high-quality tight-knit community that supports my beliefs and values. I wouldn’t pay a monthly free to a mega-corporation like The New York Times simply because none of what they write is truly original. Moreover, being a corporation, they have a certain narrative to push their ideas, ideas that can be found for free elsewhere on the Internet.
On the other hand, I’d have no problem paying a smaller, more independent community centered around original content that is hard to find elsewhere.
Apparently, those who said that blogs aren’t a business model are completely wrong. Blogs are a business model if the content is truly originally and interesting. Blogs are a business model when the content is worth paying for.
This changes the creator economics in profound ways. Essentially what this means is, that, right now a blog, you know the old basic blog, suddenly became a viable business model. If you can write something interesting, thought-provoking and, most importantly, original. If you can affect people so that they walk away from your site with a slightly different perspective about how the world works, you now have the tools to turn that raw knowledge into a real business that will fund your lifestyle, tools that you didn’t have ten years ago.
Of course, building a blog that truly matters is another story altogether. That’s beyond the scope of this article, but, generally speaking, if you’re not taking your blog seriously and are using it as a means to some other end then, you probably won’t be able to directly monetize it. In this case, your value add lies elsewhere.
Creating a quality blog means having a coherent theme, interesting and original content, plus having the discipline to produce this content on a regular schedule (at least once a week). Anything less than that and you’re presenting yourself as someone who doesn’t take their job seriously. And, just like a boss who won’t pay an employee who doesn’t show up to work, your visitors won’t pay you if they believe you’re not taking your job seriously.
Of course, this business model isn’t for everyone. For some, their added value might indeed be some other product, and that’s absolutely fine. For others, their goal is to raise awareness to some brand without selling anything. Not everyone blogs because their goal is to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author or a multi-millionaire.
But for creators who take their blogs seriously because their blogs are their livelihood—and not just as vehicles for promoting a third party product—there’s now a viable model for making good money from their writing alone.
What’s amazing about this model is that if your writing is good and interesting, you don’t have to worry about making it marketable and profitable. Your community would take care of that. Once you have a community, all you have to do is consistently create new stuff, whether it’s writing an article, a video, a podcast, etc. This way you only focus on what you’re good at and ignore everything else.
This is as pure and honest as any business model gets. I write, you pay. I make a video, you pay. I make a podcast, you pay. If you don’t like what I have to say, you stop paying me. In this case, my interests as a producer are closely aligned with your interests as a consumer without the need to create and promote another product. Of course, I still have the option to do both if I so desire.
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