Five Ways To Monetize Internet Activity

Napster, Inc.
Music for nothing and… well, that was about it. Image via Wikipedia

Every content-heavy site from those with millions of pieces of unique content to the niche site with an active blog and an enthusiast behind a WordPress blog is seeking the Holy Grail of revenue:  monetizing that content or activity.

Mainstream media quickly learned — and then constantly received reinforcement — that subscriptions for premium content would never get enough scale.    Others, like Slate and its millions of visitors under the umbrella of its Washington Post/Newsweek (WPNI) parents, can earn money advertising. Some enterprising bloggers took advantage of a “tip jar” micropayment system last year that was little more than an updated version of Amazon’s old donation system.  Some still post an Amazon wish list.

For content or plugins or scripts, the visitor is encouraged to buy something from the provider’s wish list.  Think of it as a registry for geeks. A newer trend is emerging where websites go the public broadcast (NPR/PBS) route and simply ask for money.  Wikipedia kicked off the outreached hand by telling users that the site had a $6 million operating budget.  They nailed their budget faster than most observers would have thought possible.

Creative outlets like Paste Magazine went in another direction and offered access to dozens of rare songs for anyone who donated, even if the donation was $1.  (Sure, build a house list of people who were willing to pay?   I would make that acquisition every day and twice on Sunday). Even non-profits, like our friends at Stop Political Calls put out the word that donations were needed to keep their mission alive for another election cycle.  They’ve been behind some impressive legislative efforts and may have single-handedly put the word ‘robocall’ in the public lexicon, but it takes money to do things like pay for web sites and databases and so on.

While recently speaking to some students, I was surprised to learn how many viewed asking for money as crass or somehow violating some spirit of the Internet.  I thought we had done away with the “all content must be free” nonsense, but folks weaned on Napster, torrents and the dozen different ways to transfer entire media libraries for the cost of an external drive and some time seem to have brought the issue to the forefront again.   No, the Internet and its content aren’t free by any measure, except the one that counts:   businesses and people actually being paid.

The ways you can monetize content and activity.

1.  Charge for a subscription.  This works in closed, tiny social networks or very rare, specialized content.  But if the Wall Street Journal still can’t make it work, you probably can’t either.

2.   Build your traffic and sell advertising.   Blogs with 100 daily visitors won’t cut it.  Either commit to a site and put your heart and soul there while you network, bring on editorial help and create a destination or go home.

3.   Ask for money.   Not all sites that do this get any. Some get a fraction of what they really need.  Wikipedia got $6 million, it’s true, but more than ten times that number visit the site every month.   If they each gave one dollar, the site would be set for quite a while.

4.   Ask for a little bit of money like micropayments.  Offer a “tip jar” or Amazon wish list.    These have spotty performance.  Some people swear by them.  Others give it a shot, make $37.50 and decide their integrity is worth more.

5.   Be absolutely different from everyone else.  IMdb owns the movie and television data world.  AMG does the same for music.  The political call folks are the only ones with a registry targeted to politicians.     Adobe owns the PDF format.   Do something unique and leverage the traffic. I spoke today with an educator who is launching a distance learning site.  He recounted the story of a woman who called their office, irate that someone would dare charge for a category offered free online.  “Look at the free things,” he offered.  “If you think they’re equal to what we have, then by all means, use them.”   She returned later and signed up because they were that different.  Now if she only had six million friends…

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