What are the options for creators who want to monetize their audience?
There are many ways for creators to make money online. This guide lays out the options and helps you choose the best one for you.
You’ve spent months, possibly even years, building your audience.
You’ve traded sleepless nights, early weekends, and every scrap of your free time to make it happen, but it’s been worth it.
Your audience is engaged, active, and growing by the day. You’re finally in a good place for your hard work to start paying off in the most literal sense possible.
In other words, you’re ready to monetize your audience.
So you start looking at your options.
And that’s when things go sideways.
It’s not that there aren’t any options -- it’s that there are so many options and so many people swearing theirs is the best for you that it feels impossible to choose.
Here’s the shining light: the hardest part really is over.
The sweat you broke while researching and building your audience was the worst of it. There are more options to monetize your audience than ever before, true, but if you play your cards right -- we’ll teach you that today -- you’ll have bankable income that rolls in year-round.
So without further ado, let’s dive in and get a lay of the land. What are the most popular monetization options for creators?
The monetization landscape is vast, but creators aren’t happy
In late 2017, the Social Media Examiner commissioned a report with over 4,300 different creators to learn about the state of the monetization landscape.
What they found was both good and bad for creators.
Because the good news is always better than the bad news, let’s start with that.
First, it revealed that the options for creators are vast. Among respondents to their survey, there were eight different popular monetization models. Advertising, productizing (selling your own products), and freelancing/consulting led the way.
This richness of solutions bodes well for online creators for a few reasons, but the greatest advantage of having so many options is this:
There’s a well-established monetization model to fit every niche.
Which means first-time creators and audience leaders don’t have to fly blind as they navigate their audience and revenue streams. No matter which direction you choose to go, there’s a clear path to follow from start to finish.
Creators no longer have to rely on gimmicky “growth hacks” to make their monetization methods effective.
Which is likely part of the reason why the Entrepreneur Index™, a proprietary index that measures the success of the top 60 public and entrepreneur-run companies, is thriving after its temporary plummet in January 2019.
And with so many successes and options, it should come as little surprise that our own research, compiled by talking with over 2,000 creators, reveals 73% of side-hustling entrepreneurs plan to leave their day job in the dust and go full-time.
The economy, as is evidenced by the Entrepreneur Index, is in a great place for them to do so.
But that’s not all that’s going for creators.
Despite the prevalence of myths about the collapse of small businesses, failure rates are on a long-term decline, as well. Since 1977, the rate at which new businesses fold up shop has declined by 30% in the United States.
So it’s definitely a great time to be an entrepreneur and an even better time to monetize your audience.
A fact that people like Reuven Lerner, a long-time educator who turned his offline skills into an online powerhouse, have capitalized on.
But I said there was bad news about the monetization landscape, and there is.
It may be wide, but creators aren’t happy with it.
Because although yes, there are more options than there have ever been before, and yes, it’s also easier than ever to run a home-based online business, the oversaturation of advertisements have left creators in a bad spot.
Just how bad? Take a look for yourself.
When asked if they were satisfied with the revenue they’re making, only 21% of entrepreneurs could answer with a definitive “yes".
Surprised by this disparity? Despite the previously mentioned fact that the options are numerous and entrepreneurs are performing well, you need only look at the top monetization channel, advertising, to find the source of the disconnect.
Put simply, the same thing that makes the internet so healthy for side-hustlers also gives megalith corporations like Google an unhealthy grip on the economy, and it’s a grip they’re using to their advantage.
YouTube-based creators are feeling the squeeze in particular.
How bad of a squeeze is it?
The majority of creators are only making around ~$100 a month in YouTube advertising revenue.
And those creators aren’t your up-and-comers, either. They’re the top performers in their niche. They have to be: recent changes to YouTube’s partnership program have set exacting standards for admission.
Before you can hope to make a single cent from advertising on YouTube, your channel now has to meet these lofty goals:
- Approved AdSense account
- At least 1,000 subscribers
- 4,000 public watch hours
That’s just the bare minimum to apply for the program -- whether or not you’ll be accepted is another matter altogether.
These requirements, coupled with the low revenue for those who do make the cut, have turned many creators away from the once-beloved advertising model for monetization.
In fact, increasingly dissatisfied with their returns and the steep requirements to participate, entrepreneurs have begun looking to other channels to pad their pockets.
The top channel that creators are turning to after advertising is now productizing.
But productizing, while obviously one of our preferred methods, isn’t the only option. As you can see, advertising still holds significant sway over the creator population.
Specifically, the allure of sponsorships and brand deals continues to entice online business hopefuls, but is it an allure worth chasing?
If it was everything it promised to be, down to the casual cocktails on the beach and laptop in the sand? Absolutely.
But it’s not. Here’s why.
Sponsorships and brand deals
Sponsorships and brand deals are only profitable for one group of people: the already rich and famous.
When you’re in that illustrious group, you can attract lucrative deals and drool-worthy returns. After all, a single brand mention by an influencer can yield over $300 in profits for businesses.
With profit potential like that, top-performing influencers rake in annual profits upwards of $10,000,000.
Making that kind of bank would be a dream come true, right?
Unfortunately, it’s a dream that’s realized by the select few and them alone. For smaller influencers -- you know, people with audiences ‘just’ shy of clearing 100,000 -- rates and payoffs are significantly lower.
Just check out this rate package from a lifestyle blogger with a not-insignificant 118,000 followers and 2.5% engagement rate:
Are those rates worth passing over? Far from it. But it paints a very different picture of the revenue of “middle” performers than what’s touted by the top performers.
And those are the people with, by current global population estimates, 0.0013% of the world at their beck and call.
So just imagine if you’re working with a ‘small’ audience of fewer than 10,000 followers.
Or better yet, take a look at the latest data on so-called “micro-influencer” rates. 84% of micro-influencers charge less than $250 per Instagram post.
That’s not even getting into the many significant drawbacks of relying on sponsorships as a creator, such as:
- You have little to no control over the terms of the deal.
- You may have to promote a product you aren’t faithful to make ends meet.
- Your sponsor can leave at any time and take your revenue with them.
But the biggest kiss of death for sponsorships and brand deals?
It’s that they’re not that profitable in the first place: in fact, creators say it’s one of the lowest yielding revenue streams.
All of which brings us to our final point on brand deals:
Yes, like advertising, it’s still an option.
But unless you’re making headlines, it’s not a great one.
The next monetization model, fortunately, fares better.
In many ways, affiliate marketing is the natural evolution of sponsorships and brand deals.
Accessible by all (and with the popularity to match), affiliate programs run the gamut from behemoth-sized programs at digital marketplaces like Amazon to smaller home-grown operations like ActiveCampaign’s affiliate program.
What makes affiliate programs differ from traditional brand deals is their simplicity.
While a brand deal requires direct negotiation and typically carries high admission requirements -- like what you saw with YouTube -- there’s no shortage of available affiliate programs for ordinary people to join.
And, most importantly, you don’t need to be a mega influencer to make a profit with affiliate marketing.
All you need is an engaged audience that trusts your recommendations. Once you have the audience, you just drop an affiliate link in your content, and if your followers buy the product, you’ll get a commission for the sale.
Visually, this is how affiliate marketing breaks down:
It’s a dead-simple way to make money online.
It’s also got a significant track record for both brands and creators. In 2017 alone, retailers in the states spent almost $5.5 billion on affiliate marketing.
Those expenditures are only going to continue looking up, too.
But what about right now? At present, 81% of brands and 84% of online publishers use affiliate marketing.
Creators are profiting from it, as well.
For instance, a single affiliate marketer, Jason Stone, generated $7 million in sales in one year with affiliate revenue.
The biggest drawback to affiliate marketing, however, is worth mentioning.
You can’t rest on your laurels with this model.
You have to continue drumming up new traffic and keep your audience members engaged with your content to maintain profitability. You can’t expect your current audience to keep buying the same products over and over again, even if they are great and niche-specific products.
So affiliate marketing definitely has a place in your monetization mix, but it shouldn’t be your only channel.
Because beyond the high upkeep with generating new traffic, affiliate marketing is contingent on the programs and merchants that fund it.
In other words, if the terms of the program change, as happened with Amazon in 2017, and affiliate marketing is your only revenue stream, you could lose your primary source of income overnight.
That’s not a good position for anyone to be in.
Luckily, diversifying your revenue is also easier than ever, too, which is where our next monetization option comes into play.
When you think of online courses, you probably think of something like what you see below: a course led by esteemed professors and offered in a digital format.
But this notion of online courses and distance learning as the realm of credential academics alone is, at best, outdated.
At worst, it’s downright misleading.
The modern face of online courses -- particularly those that creators use to monetize their audience -- is far wider and more accessible for everyday entrepreneurs.
With countless online course platforms available, creators now have the freedom to productize their expertise at a premium and deliver targeted education for their audience.
How much of a premium?
Selling online courses have a lot of benefits for creators and their audiences alike, but these are my favorite:
- Revenue goes directly to the creator (unless you’re using a platform like Udemy)
- Audiences can access and enrich their lives without a rigorous or expensive application
- After the initial startup cost, the only expenses creators have to maintain are hosting and marketing
And as the Social Media Examiner report demonstrates, the secret about these benefits is out. Creators, fed up with the restrictions and volatility of advertising models, are looking for better options. Online courses are just one of those options.
Do you want to know the best part about selling online courses?
You don’t need to have a long wall of credentials or years of experience to get started.
All you need is a dash of bravery and your own expertise (which, despite what impostor syndrome might tell you, you definitely have) with a few simple, ordinary tools to create stunning and successful courses like what you see below.
How simple and ordinary, you ask?
You can shoot professional-quality video on your smartphone.
You can edit it with free tools, too.
And once you do, you’ll have a steady source of income that no advertiser or affiliate can take out of your hands by changing the terms of their program.
Your following doesn’t have to be half as big as you need with affiliate marketing, by the way.
Don’t believe me?
Bryan Harris launched to over $220,000 in revenue in just 10 days with an email list smaller than 15,000.
And while those results are striking, they’re not out of the ordinary. Every day, you read about ordinary people -- people like you -- who turn the tide and build profitable businesses from humble beginnings and scale to even greater heights.
That’s the beauty of it.
With online courses, you don’t have to devote your every waking moment to generating new traffic to make a liveable income.
It’s not a massively expensive or time-intensive hustle to maintain, either. For some creators, people like Len Smith, it only takes 10 hours of maintenance and marketing a week to pull in an additional $6,500 a month.
Online courses can, however, be time-intensive to create, particularly if you’re juggling another job on top of it. If you’re short on hours to burn and can’t or don’t want to commit to online courses, the next type of information product may be a better fit to monetize your audience.
For starters, they’re often cheap -- if not free -- to produce.
And cheap matters. 77% of new small businesses, which is what you’re launching if this is your first time monetizing your audience, are financed with the creator’s personal funds.
Beyond that, digital downloads are also far easier to put together quickly.
The caveat is that they tend to come with a lower price point than online courses, but that’s an advantage, as well.
If you’ve never sold anything to your audience before, getting them to commit to a digital download at $25 is simpler than asking for a triple-figure commitment with an online course.
But perhaps best of all, digital downloads are a cinch to put up for sale.
How much of a cinch? As in upload, set a price, and call it a day kind of cinch if you’re using the right digital download platform.
And in some cases, like it was for Justin Jackson, they can sell well before they’re finished. He started his now six-figure career with a single chapter of an ebook, Marketing for Developers, and a landing page.
Digital downloads don’t have to be ebooks, by the way.
A digital download can be any type of downloadable content, including:
- Printable resources (such as workbooks, calendars, and patterns)
- Applications (for desktop devices, mobile devices, or both)
- Video and audio files (e.g., recorded webinars, audio lectures, and premium podcasts)
- Creative assets (like fonts, photography, and slide decks)
Want to see these products in action? Check out 19 real-life examples of digital downloads to learn more.
Or better yet, take a swing by our examples page.
OK. Let’s switch gears and talk about the last monetization method for the day: it takes a lot more time to create and maintain than a digital download, but the rewards are worth it.
Repeatedly worth it, at that.
Low-maintenance income is the dream for most creators.
But there's a flaw with most types of informational product: you can only sell it once. After a customer has bought your online course, you’re tasked with creating more products or finding new customers to keep the revenue rolling in.
Unless, of course, you’re selling memberships.
When you sell memberships -- and memberships come in all different shapes and sizes -- you have the benefit of a regular salary from recurring revenue.
If you’ve never considered a membership site before, here’s what you need to know:
- Members renew their financial obligation with you regularly.
- You don’t have to juggle a dozen plugins and complicated hosting packages to run one.
- You can offer multiple payment tiers and member levels to reach the widest audience possible.
For many creators, memberships are the logical stepping stone up from online courses. Becky Mollenkamp, for instance, started her entrepreneurial career with online courses, and now pulls in over $10,000 annually from her membership program.
But online courses aren’t prerequisites for launching a successful membership. The only hard and fast requirement for a membership site is having an audience to sell to.
What that audience looks like and what your membership program does for them is up to you.
Because like online courses, memberships can be anything you want them to be.
They can be results-driven, as is the case with Good Karma’s entrepreneur-focused membership program.
Or community-driven, like what you see with Jamie Keddie’s wildly successful membership program for teachers.
Or, for that matter, they can be a hybrid -- that’s the most popular option -- of whatever resonates best with your audience.
Sounds nice, right? But if you’d prefer to see the hard data -- I would -- on just how profitable a membership website can be, swing by our membership ROI calculator.
Otherwise, this is the gist of it:
Membership websites are a great way to keep your audience engaged, monetize that engagement, and replace your monthly income without the volatility of one-time products.
Monetize your audience the way you built it -- your own way
At the beginning of this article, we talked about how many options there are for creators to convert their followers into paying customers.
And then we looked at how many of those options are good.
Here’s what you need to know about your monetization options:
- Advertising isn’t an effective channel for small fish anymore, and the definition of small isn’t particularly forgiving, either. If your audience is smaller than 10,000, you’re going to struggle with advertising.
- The same is true for sponsorship and brand deals. They’re great if you’re already rich and famous -- if you’re not, you might have to take a lot of deals you’d rather pass up on.
- Affiliate marketing is still a viable channel, but like advertising and brand deals, it leaves creators beholden to someone else’s terms. If those terms change, your revenue goes with it.
- That’s where productizing comes in. Creators are tired of living by someone else’s guidelines -- and paying them for that privilege -- and have started selling their knowledge on their own terms with informational products.
- Online courses are just one type of informational product to start with, but while they’re low upkeep to maintain, they can be a heavy time investment in the beginning.
- If you can’t or don’t want to commit to an online course, selling digital downloads may be the better solution. They’re cheap, fast, and have launched six-figure careers.
- On the opposite side of the spectrum is membership programs. Memberships take more time and effort to get up and keep running than our last two options, but they yield a significant advantage for creators -- recurring revenue.
The reality is that there’s no single universal formula for how best to monetize your audience. You’re the one who put in the work to build your followers’ trust and engage them, so you’re also the only person who can discover the most effective way to sell to them.
But that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. If you decide online courses, digital downloads, or memberships are right for your audience, then we have a platform that makes it easy to manage all three products -- and your customers -- from one dashboard.
But don’t just take my word for it: try it out for yourself for free today.