(This is the ninth in a series of postings about citizen media business issues. See the introduction here. All of these entries are considered to be in “beta” and will be revised and refined as they find a home on a more permanent area of the Center for Citizen Media web site. To that end, your comments, additional examples, and criticisms are welcome and will be invaluable contributions to this process.)
Over the past few months, the Citizen Media Business Issues series of posts have taken a look at several possible business models/sources of revenue that a citizen media outfit may want to explore. Hopefully they were informative. I should reaffirm that all of these entries are still, as the top of each states, in “beta.” If you have noticed any errors, omissions, or if you have anything at all to add, please leave a comment or send an email to me.
Those models that have been explored here—affiliate programs, memberships/subscriptions, branding/promotion/support, merchandising, donations, and ad space—represent what appear to be the best options for citizen journalists at the moment. It is not an exhaustive list. For example, pay-to-blog services such as Pay-Per-Post were intentionally omitted. These companies will compensate bloggers for writing favorable reviews about particular products or services. While this is a way to make a few bucks and “monetize” your blog, it certainly is not journalism, and it raises far too many serious ethical concerns to merit a recommendation.
Chances are good that you already have an idea how each of these would play out on your site, but if one doesn’t jump out at you, how do you decide what the right first step is?
The elements of creativity and customizability are substantial enough in each to limit how accurate general recommendations can be. By and large, finding the best fit will require a little experimentation. Playing with different approaches and tweaking their presentation can be very beneficial and you may notice that small changes can make big differences. A caveat: good experimentation does not include signing up for and implementing every single source of revenue at once or overloading a page with ads to see where they are most profitable. Also, it’s probably a good idea to let your readers know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. A simple heads up that you’re selling ad space or introducing a paid ad-free subscription plan to recoup your losses in time or money can go a long way in gaining their understanding (not to mention feedback).
There are, however, a few generalizations we can make based on your personal technical savvy and available time as well as your site’s content and number of readers. [Note: If you don’t know how many readers you have, Google Analytics provides a free, easy-to-implement statistical system that should give you all the information you need (more on these in the upcoming post on search engine optimization)].
These are especially useful if you sometimes discuss products or services that people might like to buy (have you ever a received a query to the tune of “where can I get…?”) Affiliate links don’t take up space on your page unless you use them like advertisements, so are not intrusive to your site’s visitors. In fact, you can format the links like any other such that some readers may not even realize they’re there unless they click to find out more information on whatever it is you’re discussing. These programs require very little technical know-how to set up or maintain, only requiring a special URL. Also, they can be effective for any traffic level.
Avoid this technique if you want to preserve a solid sense of perceivable objectivity. You are, after all, getting a cut if someone buys the product you discuss. Also avoid if you think you may be tempted to write about things just so you can throw in an affiliate link.
Disclosure is essential in any case: Make sure people know you will be getting a cut of the sales price.
FULL MEMBERSHIPS AND PARTIAL-ACCESS SUBSCRIPTIONS
This is only for sites with very unique content that people would be willing to pay for. Subscription models can be lucrative in the rare instances they work, and while larger reader bases can better withstand the blow to reader numbers such a system inevitably brings, extraordinary content may enable such systems to work with small numbers.
In general, it may be best to avoid this. A transition from open content to a full or partial-access structure rarely works, though adding paid areas for highly valuable content is less intrusive than going all-pay. People are used to being able to find the information they want on the web without subscription fees, so there has to be a compelling reason for them to pay. Starting a site with a subscription model is also difficult because it’s hard to get enough people interested and because the word-of-mouth marketing that the web generally relies on never has a chance to occur. Also avoid if you don’t have significant web programming expertise or resources to hire someone who does.
EARLY EDITION AND AD-FREE SUBSCRIPTIONS
Ad-Free versions recommended for high-traffic sites with users who read often or extensively. Early edition recommended for sites with unique, anticipated content. These are typically used in combination with some other revenue stream. While still occasionally utilized successfully, these were more popular a few years ago. Since then, people have grown adept at simply tuning out ads and—again—finding the content they want for free when they want it.
Avoid if, similar to the other subscription models, you don’t have significant web programming experience. These systems require a lot of time and work, which may cancel out whatever reward they carry. Also avoid if you plan to increase advertising to steer people towards an ad-free version.
BRANDING, PROMOTION, AND SUPPORT
This is recommended if your career could benefit from having other people see your writings in ways that enhance your stature. Academics, lawyers, and scientists all utilize this approach to promote themselves in a manner similar to the way they would when publishing a journal article. Blogging can be a natural, even fun, extension of your professional career. You don’t need a great number of readers to make it worthwhile. Exposure to just a couple potential clients and increased Googleability can go a long way.
Not all publicity is good publicity. Making yourself look bad either through your writing or through a poorly-designed web site (such as one that’s chock full of intrusive ads) can be equally detrimental to your career. Avoid if you don’t think you really have the time to commit to doing it right.
Recommended for non-profit organizations or sites where hard work is clearly demonstrated. Donation buttons often make a great supplement to other sources of revenue, but are perhaps most powerful when they are used pointedly instead of ads. These can be successful with any amount of traffic, but probably most effective on sites with devoted, regular readers. Donation buttons are extremely easy to set up, requiring as little as a PayPal account.
Avoid if you already have a lot of advertising on your site—you run the risk of looking greedy. Also avoid soliciting donations to the point of panhandling or pestering readers.
Recommended to those with loyal reader bases, arts-oriented content, or clever ideas for branding or products. Plain white CafePress items with your site’s name on them don’t hurt, but they probably won’t do much for you. Merchandising, even through a service like CafePress, does require a modicum of technical savvy—enough to make your design look good, anyway. However, once established, such shops require little time to maintain. One of the greatest benefits of merchandising is its tendency not to be intrusive. Branded products sold on the site they’re promoting look less like advertisements and more like content—they can even give one a sense of being “in on” something people get excited about (excited enough to buy a t-shirt). If your products or brand is strong, merchandising can be successful with any size readership.
While offering a t-shirt or bumper sticker is a pretty innocuous, avoid the temptation inherent in automated shops like CafePress and Zazzle to put your site’s name or a basic logo on every one of the hundreds of products available.
Recommended to those who have a little technical knowledge to make ads look neat. Advertising is the most intrusive of all those business models discussed here, but also often the most effective. The level of intrusion increases as you move from text ads to image to video to Flash to anything with sound. Similarly, the intrusion varies with the size of the ads and their placement. While it’s hard to say which of these business models would be the most profitable for you, advertising will usually be the only surefire means to generate some income—even if it’s pennies—regardless of readership. Financial success will, however, be directly variable with traffic.
Avoid anything that pops up, over, or under. Everybody hates them. Avoid random ad placements—think about how the site will look. Content readability/enjoyability should be your focus. Every ad takes something away from your image.
(Ryan McGrady is a new media graduate student at Emerson College where he is studying knowledge, identity, and ideas in the information age.)