Thursday, December 27, 2012

How to REALLY make money from a website

As much as I tell people to seriously reconsider buying too much into the hardcore “Make Money Online” hype, I can not argue against its allure and the fact that, well, people DO make money online.

The problem is, there are the usual caveats:

  • It’s not fast.
  • It’s not easy.
  • You WILL encounter problems and tough challenges.
  • You might not always enjoy it.

These are challenges facing Roman who asked me for a blog critique. He has been building a site all about his experience of creating a website that makes money called “How this website makes money” (how meta). Problem is, while he is getting some pretty OK traffic, it isn’t making him much money.

Roman shows how his website works

Kind of important for a site about making money with websites to make money, right?

It would be remiss of me at this point to ignore another challenge that would face many people …

  • People might well say hurtful things, some of whom will be random internet strangers.
I would like to keep the conversation constructive. When you are considering what to write in the comments, please keep this in mind, ok? :)

Making Money with Websites is Hard

We have established that most people who set out to make money at anything will have a hard time. Most businesses fail, just a fact of life. What “fail” means in reality is a lot of people give up, a lot of people start multiple business and focus on the successful ones, and so on. I have a whole bunch of abandoned sites and domains just waiting for when I “have time”. But suffice to say, it’s not a certain or easy thing by any means.

Looking down that list above (which is not anywhere near exhaustive) and hearing this might well put you off.

At the very least it doesn’t seem as glamourous now, does it? But if you are still interested in learning about how to turn a website profitable, despite how hard it can be, then read on.

Still here? OK, I did mention that some people manage it … So how do you REALLY make money from a website?

Two Types of Websites that Make Money

There are two main types of website that make money.

  1. A business that is marketed online.
  2. A “magazine” or “media” business.

Mine is the former. I have a consulting, training and coaching business, and I mainly market that business via a website and other online channels. Another example would be Copyblogger Media. In fact, I would say now Copyblogger Media is a “software” business, but that is a discussion for another time :) A business sells products and services, the content is a way of attracting people and retaining their interest.

Examples of the second category would be the stereotypical blog – any of the gadget and tech blogs, such as Techcrunch, Gizmodo, et al. Your news sites.  They use advertising (and maybe affiliate links), and therefore are “monetized” media and eyeballs, clicks and page impressions.

Sites do not have to stay rigidly in one form versus another, but you do need to know your business model or at least the direction you are headed. Take Darren’s Digital Photography School. It started out magazine style, quickly turned into a community, and now sells information products.

For sure there are other models of profitable site that work, but for the most part these two categories are the ones that work for more people.

Back to the Critique

Roman’s business plan appears to be as follows:

  1. Use the site as it’s own case study.
  2. Report on the progress, metrics and tactics used.
  3. Make money via hosting and domain reselling/affiliate, and some Adsense.

So far, at the time of writing, he has achieved the below milestones:

Milestones at "How this Website Makes Money"

Which business model would you guess Roman is following?

Yes, I would say Roman is following the “Magazine” format, and he is facing the classic challenges of that format.

Challenges of the Media/Magazine Website Format

While there are nice benefits to the magazine style format, there are several challenges too.

On the one hand, it seems like you can put most of your effort into what you do best and what you most enjoy, such as writing, engaging with your audience, and so on. You can make your own hours, or even not work at all. Some might even suggest you can make money with zero effort once the hard work is done – set it and forget it. And that is all true, for some, and for a varying amount of time.

It’s not necessarily true for you, though.

What becomes immediately obvious to anyone who has tried this approach is you need a LOT of traffic. Much more than what Roman is getting.

Adsense does not pay very well in all but a tiny number of high competition niches, so you need a heck of a lot of clicks, and that means a great deal of traffic and you need your ads to be very “in your face” (perhaps to the point of being obnoxious).

If you are going to be an affiliate or reseller for a commodity like domains and hosting, again you are going to need a great deal  of traffic. If that commodity does not have an already in demand brand name that you can rank in search for (especially for the purchasing type phrases, such as “[Brand] Review” or “Buy [Brand]“, then expect to need an eye-watering amount of traffic.

Relying on search traffic? You are also going to need a design that drives as many people towards clicks or purchases as possible. Blogs are made for browsing and “ooh shiny”, not pushing people down tracks that end up at conversions.

It can be done, but there is an alternative …

A Different Model

The good news is, while Roman has been struggling, he is actually in a pretty good shape.

His intentions and approach are not necessarily wrong, but I think his business model does not match his tactics, or at least implementation of them.

We had a brief discussion in email and he said he was wary of being too out there in terms of engaging his community, social media, public speaking, and so on. While all those things definitely do help, it’s not the only way.

What Roman needs is to improve in four areas:

  1. Targeting.
  2. Retention.
  3. Conversion.
  4. Sharing.

Audience Targeting

Right now, Roman’s hook is kind of self-referential. It’s all about Roman’s site. OK, there is the aspect of the reader “learns by example”, but the big flashing neon message subconsciously says “This is me doing my thing, come admire it” :)

The “you can too” aspect is let down by the lack of any proof – right now it is a case study in NOT making money, right? But that can be turned around by first focusing on what you CAN teach credibly (creating and maintaining a website under your own personalised domain that attracts traffic) and after making some money, you can return to the making money aspect.

Your hook is a promise. If you are not delivering on what people think you are promising then you will not get very far. Make a promise you can keep.

What does this have to do with audience targeting? Right now Roman is attracting people he can’t help very much. He needs to attract people he can help.

And actually there is content there that will help them. It might need to be packaged and promoted differently, but Roman has the experience and knowledge to help anyone who is having trouble building a website. Don’t overlook that – I get questions every day from people confused with domains, hosting and FTP – all things Roman knows well.

The best place to be is to find an audience with a self-identified problem that you can solve (profitably).

OK, they might not all be ready to buy quite yet, which brings us on to the next part.


When you have something to sell you have two choices. First you can try to make the sale right now, which is tough. The second option is easier, keep them interested until they are ready.

Retain the audience you manage to attract and keep them warm. Get people onto a list.

Let’s see how you can do that with some examples:


AuthorityBlogger Squeeze Page

My Sidebar Opt-in Form

A Copyblogger Landing Page

What these examples have in common is they are highly visible, you are given an incentive to sign up, and promises are made to keep you interested long-term.

Answer “What’s In It For Me?” – why should we sign up? What are we going to get that we can’t get anywhere else?

  • The “Squeeze” example gives compelling bullets then limits the choice to opt-in or not. There are very few distractions.
  • The “landing page” gives you some good stuff but then says if you want more then check out the newsletter.
  • The sidebar is the most humble of the lot – it sits there waiting until the reader is ready, but does show WIIFM.

Use all of these in combination :)

It’s not just about having a list though, it is about having the reader’s attention over a longer period so you can show them the way to what they want (a profitable website?), piece by piece.

And, yes, show them offers too.

Even better in Roman’s case would be a drip-fed email based tutorial that shows step by step how to build a site, along with all the links to resources they would need.

Which leads us to conversions …

Converting Readers

I already mentioned that converting readers on first visit is crazy difficult. Instead, warm people up.

You know the best way to warm people up to your way of thinking? Educate them. Teach something they want to know.

If over time you share tutorials, videos, downloads, straight to their inbox, and they get results, then they are going to know, like and trust you. That “trust” one is the big one if you want people to take up your offers.

Show people how to use the tools you use to get the results they want and they will think favourably about buying those tools that you recommend.

Don’t just rely on affiliate/reseller offers though.

What could you offer people right away? A good example would be trouble-shooting or targeted website building training. You could sell 30min chunks of consulting time to help people out of problems they have gotten into or show them how to do something they are struggling with.

People don’t want “stuff”, they want solutions or they want to achieve something. When you help them do that, then they thank you.

Even better, they might bring friends …


The last thing you want to do is rely on Google for both your traffic AND your revenue.

Instead you want to attract your visitors as much as possible from referrals with SEO as a nice side source.

We already established that social media is not high on Roman’s “want to” list, but for everyone else reading we know this is one good source of sharing that I would encourage.

At all times you should encourage as many of your readers to share your stuff as possible. We are talking about sharing buttons, sharable media such as YouTube videos and PDF, and written call to actions asking for people to share.

A big tip is to use headlines that go viral.

Bottom line for sharing is that you have to turn up as a real, likeable person, engage your audience, and reward your reader so much for giving you their attention that they want to tell all their friends about you.


Roman is doing lots of things right. He doesn’t have a content problem or an idea problem, it is more a packaging and promotion issue. It will be very difficult to create the masses of traffic he needs to monetize as he currently is, but by creating a list of people who are engaged and want to hear from him then he is much more likely to get the profit he wants.

For everyone else, there is a lesson here. It’s not just about getting attention and having something to offer. You have to either have a super-compelling offer, something the audience already knows they really want, or you have to build trust over time.

What do you think? Have any feedback for Roman? Think I missed something? Please share in the comments …


Nobuo Katsumata Richard D. Kinder Dennis H. Reilley Grant Alfred King Terry L. Shepherd

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