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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.

Retention

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 …

Sharing

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.

Conclusion

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 …

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Comments

  1. Hey Chris,

    Love this critique. And hey there Roman. It IS hard to make money from a website. When I had my iPad site, I was making several thousand a month very quickly but that was due to factors like:

    it was a hot trend
    I relied on search traffic 90%
    affiliate buys were 10%

    and we all know where that ended up ;)

    I looked at Roman’s site and I agree with the four things you pointed out. In the niche of make money online, a good site to take a peek at is: http://www.makemoneyontheinternet.com/

    Mr. Guthrie does a good job of educating and he also has a pretty big list as you can see from the sign up box right there in front. His site just looks “active” so you when you get there, it’s natural to look around and also his posts are really solutions-based.

    I like Roman’s site, although when I went there not having ever seen it before, I felt like it could use a sign up with a nice offer and some sort of indication where it was going to lead me…as in what will I achieve?

  2. I recall reading Roman’s work “back in the day.” Technically, great stuff.

    If could offer only one piece of advice for Roman: hit the comment circuit for a few months. It’s a great way to find like-minded people who will help you out. The ROI isn’t easy to calculate in short term, but from my point of view, the relationships I’ve been building are going the distance. It very difficult to say for sure whether any particular sale is a result of this or that social interaction, but I do wake up and find money in my email, from right out of the blue. Feels good.

  3. Interesting to see Roman’s site being critiqued here Chris – I’ve been in touch with him from his early days. One thing I would suggest (and I’ve been telling Roman this for years!) is that a lack of content has always been a problem for the site. There’s such a lack on continuity that a community has never really built up around the site. If I’m seeing the dates correctly, there have been 4 posts in the last 200 days. It’s a shame as Roman is a terrific writer.

    • Good point Mike – I can’t really complain about other’s posting frequency ;) but certainly the more (quality) content you have out there, the more interested visitors you will attract :)

  4. Brilliant. I’m just glad to see someone telling it as it is. Making money online is something I found really hard.

    I was originally sold on the dream of sitting in my underpants (that’s just me!) working a few hours a day and then trying to find the time to take my wheel barrows full of money to the bank.

    Reality has been harsh!

    It’s taken me two years to build a 3 figure a month site. And all I have to say is:

    If you want to make money online, re-read this article, pay attention and be prepared to work very hard. :)

    • I can’t remember who said it first but people really do work 24 hours a day to make passive income in their sleep ;)

      If you want a real business then BUILD a real business. Short cuts, tricks and loopholes are not a long term strategy, and therefore you need to work at it and follow a plan.

  5. I have the same problem as Roman has.
    I agree with Mike, I think nowadays a community around your blog could be a powerfull thing.

  6. Hello All,

    Thank you all for your positive comments (so far).

    To tell you the truth I was a little worried about having Chris critique my website. I was worried that he would say no because he is weary of ‘the make money online’ niche and does not want to represent it too much on his blog. I was also worried about the comment section and the wrath that ‘make money websites that make no money’ tend to bring upon themselves.

    The fact is the MMO niche has a bad reputation and I am embarrassed to belong to it. The other day I met guy and he mentioned that he had a website about dogs and that he makes money from it. I did not tell him that I had a website because I was embarrassed to say that it is mmo website. I know that even if he manages to hide it on the outside, in his head he is rolling his eyes.

    Of course I did not know all this when I started 3 years ago. I came to the mmo niche golf course green – I had no idea. One evening 3 years ago I was browsing the web and came upon a website (do not remember which one) that gave me the impression that making money with a website is easy. Excited, and thinking I found a undiscovered gold mine I started my own website. My lightbulb idea was to make a website about how I make money with my website. Brilliant – I would go through the process of building a website, gathering traffic, earning money. I would make money and people would love it.

    About 5 months into it, after become familiar with the blogs and forums that cater to budding webmasters like me, I started to realize that I was in a dirty niche. I am a used car salesman, I am the vacuum salesman knocking at your door. Nobody wants to talk to me and if they are listening they are not believing a word I say. Oh, your one of those guys with a website about making money without actually making money.

    And they were right – I was one of those guys. I started to feel dirty. I didn’t have my full name or picture on the website. I didn’t want my friends to find out about the website. I would be less embarrassed if I had a porn site – at least that would make them laugh.

    But as embarrassed as I am about my niche there is one true and undeniable fact. If you get it right, you can makes lots and lots of money with mmo. The dream of passive income is desired by all. Even Jesus saw it as miracle worth bragging about – put your fishing rods away boys, just sit back, relax and I will bring the fish to you. Everybody was amazed and overjoyed.

    The MMO niche has unlimited demand and the potential for a lot of money. And that why I am staying with it, even if it means that I have to endure rolling eyes and people pretending they are not home when I ring the doorbell.

    The only thing I would change, but unfortunately it is not possible because domain names cannot have symbols, is to rename the website address to howthiswebsitemakesmoney?.com. And only after I figure it out would I change it back to the original.

    For now my website it about how it is not making money. A used car sales man, who has not sold a car, showing how you can become a used car salesman. Chris…thank you for trying to protect in advance with “I would like to keep the conversation constructive. When you are considering what to write in the comments, please keep this in mind, ok? “

    • Hey there Roman.

      Don’t ever feel bad or embarrassed for the work you do. The thing with the MMO niche that gave it a bad name were the hoards of people that got into it and tried to teach others how to make money having never made a dime themselves. But teaching in general is a good thing as long as you have the knowledge and experience to back it up. I would also add that you need a passion for it.

      But don’t feel embarrassed as you are clearly an excellent writer and doer. Perhaps if this niche isn’t your ultimate passion then you take what you learned and then pour it into the gift you have to offer the world :)

  7. Darren Cronian says:

    Hi Roman (and Chris).

    I think the problem with your niche is that you really have to go out there and prove that people can trust what you write, which is a big challenge. One of the biggest lessons I learnt from blogging? Get out there and comment/network with bloggers within your niche.

    I think you are going about it the right way in that you are writing about your experiences, rather than just saying “Hey, I made £1,000 a hour yesterday!” and have your photograph stood next to a Ferrari parked in the supermarket car park.

    I am glad Chris mentioned these points:

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

    Having spent five years writing in a niche that is near impossible to monetize, I built up trust, authority in the niche, and, that has REALLY helped me build a profitable “magazine/media business” in a different niche that is much easier to monetize.

    Hope this helps.

    Darren

  8. I’m just really impressed with all of the positive attitudes and vibes coming from this post and the comments. This is the nicest group of ‘used car salesman’ – to quote Roman in his comment above, that I’ve ever seen gather:)

    • The post came out close to the weekend and a long weekend in the US. I think this accounts for the good spirits. It could of been a completely different place had it been released Monday morning :)

      Regardless of the cause of the kindness, I want thank Chris for the great critique and the commentors for their tips and advice. Based on the comments, I realize I need to improve the Retention and Sharing aspects of the website. Hopefully over the next few years I can accomplish that.

      • Roman, it’s rather a shame that you aren’t much of a “socializer” – the personality that comes through in your blog writing is attractive, funny, refreshingly honest, articulate…and did I say, funny? In short, yours is just the kind of voice it’s a rare pleasure to come across online.

  9. What I was pleasantly surprised by in the critique was the suggestion to try to mostly get referrals and use SEO as a secondary resource. So many people advise that you must be optimized or you will get no where (and they charge quite a bit to help you get set). Coming from a background as a writer, it’s a lot easier to write for people than it is for the search engines, at least for me. Plenty of useful info here. Thanks!

  10. Hi Chris,
    This is a great post show casing how one person is struggling with making money online.

    For those of us like myself who are inexperienced with earning online then being prepared to work long and hard and to continually educate will work out best.

    I just think that many haven’t set realistic enough goals.

  11. Hi Chris,

    It’s great to see a respected name in the Internet spelling out the fact that to make money online, you actually have to put in some effort – in spite of what some of the “gurus” would have you believe…!

    Kind regards,
    -John Landells.
    [Internet Marketer]

  12. Hi, I’d like to weigh in also, since I’ve taken Chris’ blogger and marketing courses, I’ve heard him make these points before, but this article really brings it home because of the real life example. It was really hard for me to create my site over a year ago and I’m still working on the messaging, etc., the learning never ends. So I say more power to Roman, because his hook, the “first really honest website about itself” is actually pretty novel and refreshing. Hey, we need more honesty! There’s a lot of hype on this topic as we know. But if you keep educating your audience like Chris said, they eventually will want to see how you progress and get on board when you do succeed. I think any posts you can write about the mechanics of the website also, as Chris suggested, especially WordPress, since it appears you are using it, would be great. I would also suggest getting on LinkedIn and joining some groups. Good luck!

  13. Being a new comer to the field of online money making, I used to read a lot of articles from the related blogs. I am glad to say that ihis article is useful to cater my curiosity.

  14. Good post and an interesting honest read, which is a refreshing change from the usual get rich quick posts out there on the internet. Good luck to Roman in the future.