You have managed to get your website to that magical point where you have established popularity, traffic, loyalty and a community of fans. Your site contains a wealth of information, resources and services that you provide free because that’s just the kind of person you are. You may not have intended to make money from your site but now that you have an audience you realise that it’s possible, or perhaps you have to start thinking about generating income because your costs to manage the site have increased and it’s starting to hurt.
You have been diligent over the years to build up your community, but now you wonder how to go about making some revenue by leveraging this audience (as the marketers would say, you want to monetise your site). Maybe you have some big dreams and plan to one day generate advertising income from your new web project. This is a very common plan for online business given people tend to expect information and services to be free on the web. Advertising may be one of the only revenue generation strategies available to you.
How much traffic do I have to have to make money?
In my experience once you have about 500-1000 unique visitors per day to your site *at least* before you can start to make real money. You can make chimps change from day one from your 50 hits, but this article is targeted at those that have a larger audience, or perhaps are constructing a business plan (either real or in your head) and would like to know how to go about monetising your website. If you get more then 1000 unique visitors a day chances are you already make money from your site (if not you should be!) but my points are still relevant.
As per usual I will illustrate my article using real world examples from what I did to make money. Over about five years I managed a hobby site that started off as a very local site focusing on people in my area that played the game Magic: The Gathering. I wrote reports and did news coverage for the game. Later I expanded the site to Australia and eventually opened it to the world although it remained mostly Australian with a good chunk of Asians and New Zealanders.
At around the time I was getting 500 unique visitors a day I decided to start playing with advertising methods. This was before the advent of Google Adsense (more on this later) but there were many banner programs available that paid either on cost per click (CPC) or per impression basis. An impression is a banner being displayed to a user once, a click is someone clicking the banner and visiting the site being advertised.
These networks act as a middle man between business that want to advertise and people like me that have an audience and want to make some money by displaying banners. Unfortunately these programs display banners that often don’t match your audience. I tried a few but it was a short lived experiment that made me a few dollars if that.
I recommend you avoid any banner programs. If you are confused about what I am talking about regarding banner programs take a look at Burst Media to get a grasp of how they work. For small sites they just don’t make much money. For large sites there are much better ways to make money. I’m sure there are people out there that make good money from these programs (I’m sure the program owners do!) but in my experience a little effort to find the right type of advertising can yield much better results.
I decided the best way to make money was to really leverage the demographics of my audience. I had a fairly focused niche, card game playing young males. I started by emailing all the local and international card game shops and asked if they were interested in exposure to my market. Instantly I had responses but I had to come up with a pricing structure first.
How much should you charge?
By this time my site was getting close to 1000 unique visitors per day, with about 300,000 impressions per month. I had done my research and I knew that advertising on websites was usually via a standard 468×60 banner so I would start with that. I also knew that many companies charged by what is called CPM or cost per 1000 impressions. Back then this was by far the most commonly used scale for pricing of web advertising and you could expect to earn anywhere from $0.10 to $10.00 CPM. I never liked this method of advertising because it didn’t guarantee any visitors. Charging by click-throughs is a far better method, but didn’t become mainstream until later.
I decided that in order to keep my advertisers I had to offer value so I went for a blanket approach. I started charging a flat rate of $30 per month to have a banner on my site which offered as many impressions that my traffic could provide. I signed up my first few advertisers at this rate.
Banner management software
In order to “rotate” different banners across my site I needed some special software that would dynamically place banners. This allowed me to have more than one advertiser banner in a single location so I could optimise my adspace and make sure my audience didn’t get too bored from seeing the same banner over and over again.
Let me save you some time, phpAdsNew is the best banner management software out there. It’s under an open source license and has all the features you could ever wish for at a price you can’t beat, it’s free. If you don’t believe me and absolutely have to try searching elsewhere try this category at the PHP Resource Index.
There is a learning curve with phpAdsNew and you do have to install it on your own server. If you are like me and you do things like this yourself most of the time you shouldn’t have too much trouble. Otherwise you might try contacting your favourite ITGeek and get them to give you a hand.
Statistics are important
The best feature with phpAdsNew is that it allows you to provide a unique user login for your advertisers to check their banner statistics in real time. This means at any point in time they can learn how many impressions and clicks their banners are receiving from your site.
Before you start searching for advertisers you should be very familiar with the statistics of your site. Do you know how many unique visitors you get? How many hits you get? How many impressions? Do you even know what the differences are between these? Try this stats terminology primer on for size if you don’t.
Most web servers come with a statistics package. Ask your web host if you don’t know. The most common are Awstats (demo) and Webalizer (demo) which often are preinstalled on many hosting packages. Become familiar with these packages so you can accurately assess your site traffic.
Increasing ad revenue
I now had the foundations laid and was serving the ads of my first few advertisers. From the point onwards I went to work attracting more advertisers by directly emailing North American online card stores and other related sites. I kept an excel file to track which websites I had emailed and their responses so I could follow up in a timely manner.
I created new banner positions and started initiatives like a newsletter to generate more revenue. I created monthly packages that combined newsletter advertising and different banner positions and offered them at $500 per quarter. I increased the top prime banner position fee to $50 per month and started offering a tower banner position for $50 as well.
Eventually I had to limit the number of banners I could take in the prime positions to avoid dilution. I had a guarantee in place that offered at least 30,000 impressions per month (averaging 40,000-60,000) to advertisers so that they always received a good equivalent CPM rate. I even had some advertisers purchase the rights to “own” a position for a certain period to make sure no other advertisers banners would be displayed.
Eventually I reached a point where I was averaging $500 per month and peaked at $1000 in one month. Some advertisers came and went quickly but many stayed loyal and in fact still advertise today though I sold the site a long time ago. The niche for the site was so focused that it became the pre-eminent site for Australia in it’s marketplace and consequently some Australian advertisers simply stuck their banners up as a branding exercise. They knew that the exposure from the site would help to align their business as one of the pre-eminent retailers or event organisers for the game. Some advertisers stopped caring about click through stats and kept advertising purely for the branding exposure.
At some point Google Adsense popped up and I was in with other early adopters to try it out. My results were okay. The money wasn’t nearly as good as the established relationships with advertisers I had, however the ads being displayed were a lot more targeted than banner networks I had tested early on.
I eventually stopped using Adsense because I could better monetise the adspace with my traditional advertisers. However that was before Google went to work providing such a variety of banner sizes and display options. Nowadays Google Adsense is a viable income source for many websites so I definitely suggest you look into it as a possible option for generating revenue, but remember it’s not the only means and you can earn more if you get busy chasing targeted advertisers.
I wouldn’t call web advertising income passive, but it sure is close. The systems I had in place handled everything automatically. While I did have to manually create advertiser accounts, pursue advertisers and control billing, once the systems were in place, in particular phpAdsNew, I didn’t have to do much. Of course depending on your website often the maintenance of your community is were the labour is involved, but chances are if you started the site you either enjoy it or have plans in place to eventually remove yourself from the maintenance role.
In the end I sold my site but if it wasn’t for the advertiser revenue my asset would not have been valued nearly as highly as the final sale price. Investing in advertising is like investing in any asset, the time and labour you put in today will lead to benefits in the future.