How can I monetize a WordPress site?

A question came up at last weekend’s WPToronto meetup that I really, really wanted to address, but didn’t have the chance to.

One of the attendees asked, “how do I monetize a site?”

And the answer they received went deep into the value of building an email list.

Email lists are valuable, but they don’t monetize your site.

If you’re looking to monetize a website, you have four options:

  1. You can create and sell a product or service.
  2. You can refer customers and get paid for it.
  3. You can sell ad impressions.
  4. You can sell sponsored content.

(You can use an email list to help you with these things, but the email list by itself won’t make you money.)

So let’s take a peek at each one of those in more detail, eh?

1. Create and sell a product or service.

The first option is to create and sell a product or service.

That’s the underlying philosophy of Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income.

You identify a niche and create a product and use your website to sell it. It could be an eBook, an online course, a WordPress plugin or theme, or something physical, if you’re into that sort of thing.

This gets you into eCommerce, whether that’s selling digital products with Easy Digital Downloads or physical goods with WooCommerce or a SaaS platform like Shopify or GoDaddy’s online store.

The other side of this option is providing a service, i.e. selling your time for money.

Maybe it’s consulting, maybe it’s website development, maybe it’s walking dogs in your neighbourhood.

You use your website to promote your service, and use forms to handle inquiries from potential clients, then charge for your time accordingly.

What’s the catch?

Creating and selling a product or service means you’re building a business. And building a business is no small task.

  • How will you handle finances?
  • How will you manage your customers?
  • How will you deal with legal disputes?

And so on. If you’re interested in pursuing this path, we’ve got a bunch of articles over on the GoDaddy blog about it.

2. Refer customers and get paid for it.

Welcome to the world of affiliate marketing. 🙂

In this case, you’re not selling your own product or service. Instead, you’re referring people to an existing product or service.

You get paid a finder’s fee — an affiliate commission — based on those referrals.

What you get paid, and how you get paid, will vary depending on the affiliate program you belong to.

How do you find an affiliate program to join?

There are affiliate marketplaces like CJ Affiliate (formerly Commission Junction), ShareASale (my favourite), Rakuten Affiliate Network (formerly LinkShare), and of course Amazon Associates.

These marketplaces contain hundreds or thousands of products and services that you can promote.

Also check to see if your favourite WordPress hosting providers, plugin authors, or theme developers offer affiliate programs of their own.

It’s also a common practice to use a plugin like ThirstyAffiliates to manage the outbound affiliate links on your website.

Tip: The FTC has strict endorsement rules in place re: disclosing affiliate relationships.

3. Sell advertising.

This is what many people immediately think of when the topic of website monetization comes up: you place advertisements on your website and get paid based on how often the ads get seen (impressions).

How do you get started with advertising?

There are a couple options:

  1. Join an ad network.
  2. Sell ads directly.

Joining an ad network, like Google AdSense, means you can get ads up and running on your site fairly quickly. Another upside is that you won’t have to deal with advertisers directly. It’s a very hands-off process.

The caveat is that you won’t have direct control over the ads running on your site, or what your ad rates are. You’ll have standard placements to choose from, and the rates will be negotiated by the ad network.

Selling ads directly puts you in control of the type of ads you run, and how much those ads should cost.

The caveat is that you’ll have to be very hands-on in finding and managing your advertisers.

Tip: BuySellAds specializes in connecting publishers (you) with merchants (advertisers).

Which approach is best?

That’s entirely up to you. If you’re just looking to make some easy money on the side, an ad network is your best bet.

If you’re looking to be a serious publisher, you should own your ad inventory and have total control over it.

Tip: To get the best of both worlds, manage your ad inventory with Google’s DoubleClick For Publishers and backfill with AdSense when you have no ads to run.

And that segues into the next option for monetization…

4. Sell sponsored content.

Traditional advertising gets displayed alongside the publisher’s content:

  • Television shows and radio programs interrupted by commercial breaks.
  • Pre-show commercials and movie trailers at the cinema.
  • Newspapers and magazines with full-page ads and inserted flyers.
  • Websites with banners and pop-ups.
  • YouTube videos with pre-roll commercials.

The best creative may be appreciated and well-received. It’s why Superbowl commercials are a thing.

But the vast, vast majority of creative is bad. They’re forgettable, or even worse, annoying. (I’m looking at you, Pringles, with your terrible YouTube commercials.)

So along comes sponsored content…

Advertisers are investing in sponsored/branded content.

With sponsored or branded content, the advertising brands are working with publishers to create content that fits the publication.

So rather than just sticking an ad into a piece of content, the content is the ad.

Big media companies like BuzzFeedThe Onion, The Washington Post, the New York Times, and Vox have entire teams devoted to producing sponsored content for their properties.

For example: Instead of running a bunch of ads promoting Disney World on unrelated articles, Vox publication The Eater created The Eater Guide to Disney World.

But what about the little guys?

If sponsored content is on one end of the spectrum, influencer marketing is on the other.

With influencer marketing, advertisers work with individuals who have audiences of their own.

The larger the audience, the bigger the influence.

If you have a website, you could be an influencer.

How big of an influencer you are depends on how big your audience is.

If you have a small audience, you may not get much in the way of monetization.

Instead, you may get discounts or free products; “swag” (branded merchandise); trips, gifts, or other perks.

If you have a large audience, you’re closer to being on par with major publishers, giving you a stronger position to negotiate from.

Tip: Your reputation is on the line with sponsored content. Promoting products and services you don’t believe in can undermine your long-term credibility. Tread carefully!

What do all these monetization options have in common? TRAFFIC!

No matter what option you pursue, they all require one big thing: an audience. Your website needs traffic for any of this to work.

Selling products or services? You’re converting traffic into marketing prospects and sales leads.

Acting as an affiliate? You’re converting traffic into program referrals.

Selling advertising? You’ll need a substantial amount of traffic to make decent revenue.

Selling direct advertising or sponsored content? Advertisers want to see strong numbers (site traffic and audience reach) before they spend any money on you.

So make sure you’re watching your numbers.

Google Analytics is the most popular choice for monitoring site traffic and it’s incredibly powerful as a free tool. The Google Analytics by MonsterInsights plugin makes installation on WordPress a breeze.

Automattic’s Jetpack plugin offers some basic functionality as well but isn’t nearly as detailed.

Hotjar provides more qualitative insights (e.g. recording visitors’ actions on your site).

Don’t forget about demographics!

Advertisers aren’t just interested in how much traffic you get. They’re also interested in who those people are.

Remember: Advertisers are trying to reach the right people with the right message at the right time.

You may have a lot of traffic, but if it’s not the right audience for the advertiser, the numbers don’t mean anything.

Thankfully, Google Analytics provides Demographics & Interests reports.

You could also use Facebook Analytics for Apps to correlate your website traffic against Facebook’s demographic insights.

Let’s recap.

So, if you’re wondering how to monetize a WordPress site, you have four options:

  1. Create and sell a product or service through your website. This includes physical goods, digital goods, membership sites, online courses, et al. Before you do, understand that this means building a business, complete with all of the obligations that come with it.
  2. Refer customers to existing products and services. You’ll need to join an affiliate program. Payment terms will depend on the program you join. Keep in mind that the FTC has strict disclosure rules. Your site’s visitors need to know if you’re being compensated for endorsements.
  3. Sell advertising. You can join an advertising network and let them handle the relationship with advertisers, deal with advertisers directly, or blend the two approaches using Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers.
  4. Sell sponsored content. Big publishers have entire teams set up to produce sponsored/branded content. If you’re an independent blogger or small business, you’d probably be considered an influencer. While similar, influencers generally have smaller audiences and can’t demand the same level of compensation.

Regardless of the methods you choose, you’ll need traffic.

  • Use an analytics tool like Google Analytics to measure and report on your traffic and website performance.
  • In Google Analytics, enable Demographics & Interests Reports to obtain more qualitative information about your audience.
  • This helps you understand the type of people you’re reaching, and it helps advertisers know if your audience is a fit for them.

Did I miss anything? Is there a resource I should add? Have a follow up question? Drop a comment below.

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