The current landscape and top options.

There are countless ways to make money online. And for many creators, that’s the problem: the options are overwhelming.

Unfortunately, making money online isn’t as easy as some “gurus” try to make it seem. 

Most channels or methods are simply get-rich-quick schemes in disguise. 

With so many options for creators to monetize their audience, it’s hard to know where to start. 

In this guide, we’ll guide you through the options and help you answer the ultimate question: 

What’s the best way to make a living off of your passion?

Here are the best online business ideas right now and the pros and cons of each to help you decide on the best monetization strategy for you.

Creators aren’t happy with the current landscape

In 2017, Social Media Examiner commissioned a study to survey online creators and how they monetize their audiences.

It studied over 4,300 different online creators who work in the blogging, video and podcast space. 

And what they found was quite shocking.

Let me break it down for you by each monetization option. First up, advertising.


The survey first asked respondents about their top ways to earn money and monetize their content/audience. 

The number one format for monetization for creators online is currently advertising. 

While “selling your own products” and consulting services were a close second and third, advertising still dominates the landscape for online content creators. 

And it makes sense, right? Advertising is generally thought of to be easy. Especially on platforms like YouTube. 

You simply fire up a new video and check the right boxes. Soon enough, you’re passively generating thousands in ad revenue. 

But not so fast. 

According to Wired, the majority of content creators on YouTube are smaller, niche-based channels with just a few thousand active subscribers. On average, they are likely only making $100 a month in advertising revenue. 

The article cites Thomas Wagner as an example, who has over 4,000 active subscribers watching every video he posts, and barely makes enough to break even. 

And recently, YouTube announced that they would favor larger channels that bring in millions of views on each and every video, generating millions in advertising income each year. 

In fact, to even collect a dime in advertising revenue, YouTube now requires channels to have 4,000 hours of annual viewing time and over 1,000 subscribers

While that's obviously bad news for creators, it makes sense for a simple reason: money.

YouTube isn’t concerned with small fish when a few big channels are bringing in billions of combined views daily and generating unimaginable amounts of ad revenue. 

Simply put, advertising to monetize your content is a dying game for creators who don’t have millions of fans. 

This was reflected in the Social Media Examiner report, which found that the majority of creators are not satisfied with the revenue they are making: 

Most creators aren’t satisfied, and YouTube is changing it’s monetization strategy to squeeze them further.

As a result, the top area where creators will invest more time and effort into is selling products: 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that selling your own products is the only option.

Sponsorships and brand deals

Advertising can be a great option to monetize content if you’re one of the very select few creators that advertisers favor: the already rich and famous.  

As we reviewed, unless you are a top creator on platforms like YouTube, you won’t make enough income. 

Platforms give more support to larger channels and creators that bring in more money. 

So, what about sponsorships and brand deals? 

Everybody wants a sponsorship online. To be the next influencer who gets free products and a contract to promote companies and their products.

And it makes sense:  the average mention of a single brand on Instagram can net over $300. 

Currently, the top influencers with huge audiences are raking in up to $75,000 per post.

That would be a dream come true for most creators online. 

Though for most creators without millions of readers, sponsor payouts are meager and unpredictable, and like ad networks, they put your income into the hands of someone else who can cut that revenue off at will. 

Sure, you can try your hand at micro-influencing. Meaning you have a smaller but more targeted and loyal audience. 

And this could be a useful approach for some creators.

But the biggest drawback is that your bottom line is out of your control. If a sponsor leaves, you’re left with nothing until you find the next one. 

Sponsorships can be great, but they are challenging to acquire, especially the sponsors who write big checks.

According to SME’s study, sponsorships are one of the least revenue-producing monetization options: 

Sponsors are only willing to pay so much for a smaller niche audience. Unless you are Kim Kardashian, you can’t expect to generate millions a year from sponsors alone. 

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing has grown in popularity with places like Amazon allowing bloggers to use affiliate product links where they make a portion of each sale.

It’s a simple way to make money online.

First, you generate traffic and an audience. Next, you place affiliate links within your content. 

For example, if you write a recipe blog, you could put affiliate links to the tools or products you use in your recipes. Then, hopefully your audience buys those tools through your link, and you make an easy profit. 

Affiliate marketing has a proven track record.

In 2017 alone, retailers in the United States spent almost $5.5 billion on affiliate marketing. 

Source: Rakuten, "Networks Help Drive Affiliate Marketing Into the Mainstream" conducted by Forrester Consulting, Feb 3, 2016

eMarketer data shows that affiliate marketing spending will only continue to skyrocket, too. 

Currently, 81% of brands and 84% of online publishers use affiliate style marketing. 

And creators are making a fortune. For example, a single affiliate marketer, Jason Stone, generated $7 million in sales in a single year with affiliate revenue

One challenge of affiliate marketing, however, is that you need to consistently bring in new traffic, as you can only place so many affiliate links. 

Once your active, non-unique following has purchased from your links, you can’t keep selling them dozens of the same cooking materials. 

Affiliate marketing can certainly be a healthy part of a monetization mix, but we recommend diversifying beyond this channel.

Online courses

The Social Media Examiner study shows one fundamental shift in the mindset of creators.

Online creators are moving towards increasing the selling of their own products, putting revenue control in their own hands. 

And that’s great news. Why? The e-learning(online course) market is absolutely booming. In fact, it’s supposed to reach $325 billion by 2025. 

Marketers like Neil Patel are starting to tout the efficacy of online courses as a content monetization platform: 

People want to learn more and more online than ever before, and online courses are the perfect digital product to address that.

And you don’t need decades of experience or expertise to get started.

With online courses, you can harness your own knowledge and specialized experience to sell courses to engaged fans and bring in new traffic.

It’s one of the best ways to create your own steady income that depends on you, not some sponsor who might pull the rug out from under you or ad networks that can demonetize you with the flip of a switch.

Don’t believe me? 

A few years ago, two 27-year-olds made over one million dollars by launching an online course

And they didn’t have a huge following, either. 

John Omar and Eliot Arntz, two college roommates, banded together to drop Wall Street jobs and pick up coding. 

Omar already had experience coding and was running his own app-development agency. Pulling Eliot into the mix, they started to teach people on the weekend how to code easy, simple iOS applications.

Looking to expand their audience, they spent three months and only $1,000 developing their course. 

Charging $99 for the course, in a single month they generated $40,000 in revenue. 


How did they (and how can you) build hype for your online course and drive traffic that wants to participate?

By following Omar’s advice: 

Turning to good old-fashioned email. 

"We literally emailed every person we knew in tech — from Eliot's General Assembly students to people who came to an iOS meetup we hosted, telling them that we built a course that would take absolute beginners and turn them into junior developers in about three months of learning. That's when we exploded.”

They generated $700,000 in revenue. Now they average $100,000 each month totaling over $1 million yearly from courses alone. 

This strategy has been used by other online creators, too. John Loomer developed his own online marketing course by using PR outreach emails combined with Facebook marketing.

And the great thing about online courses is that they can be used as a stepping stone to more revenue streams and a passive income…

Join a live demo to see why Podia is the best platform to sell your online course

See how Podia works and get all of your questions answered in an upcoming webinar on Tuesday at 4pm EST.

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Membership sites

Online courses are just the starting point when it comes to making a living from your passion.

Once you have an online course started, you can create and sell paid membership sites to offer more exclusive content to your course fans:

This allows you to charge members a monthly fee, generating income for your hard work without relying on advertisers or sponsors. You don’t have to worry about integrating and wrangling dozens of tools with an online course and membership platform, either.

For example, Good Karma hosts a membership site focused on entrepreneurial advice and growth hacking, where members pay a monthly fee to subscribe to in-depth, actionable advice:

Creating an entire group of actively engaged members, Good Karma builds an entire online community around their passion. This allows them to share their experiences, tests and content with a like-minded group with a passion for growth hacking.

Building an online community is an amazing venture. Why? Because having a tight-knit community can help you continually build your brand and showcase social proof.

Learn more about the differences between online courses and memberships in our breakdown. Better yet, dive into our simple, plug-and-play calculator to see how much profit a membership website could deliver for you.

Digital downloads

With more and more online creators looking to sell their own products rather than rely on advertising revenue, you can create more products for existing customers of your courses or memberships with digital download content.

Digital downloads allow you to upload and sell any type of digital document. PDFs, videos, spreadsheets and more.

Chris Albon brings this strategy to life, selling digital downloads for his machine learning flashcards:

With direct payment integrations like Stripe and PayPal, he can offer easy ways for interested leads to download his content in seconds. He can sell anything from eBooks to PDFs and instructional documents.

Because he has an active, engaged fan base, he can use their feedback and constructive criticism to build better products that can help his students achieve their goals.

Digital downloads are a diverse option and any creator can find ways to leverage them to turn their hobby or passion into a revenue-generating business.

The ADHD Nerd does this by selling his experience and knowledge in PDF form:

Crafting a beautiful daily planner, he helps his users facing trouble with ADHD and planning their schedules with his proven methods.

Selling content directly to your audience as an online creator has never been easier.

Conclusion: The pros and cons of each option

There are many ways for creators to make money online through monetizing their content and audience.

But studies are showing that “legacy” monetization efforts like advertising, sponsorships and affiliate marketing don’t pay as well as they used to.

Creators are fed up with unpredictable, stagnant income, leading to drastic changes in the monetization landscape.

It’s time to put your revenue in your own hands.

To create content that you can sell at your own price, to your own audience, on your own terms.

Still undecided on which route you want to take?

Below are the pros and cons of each option to help you make the right decision based on your goals.


Who Is It Best For?


Who Is It Best For?

Affiliate Marketing

Who Is It Best For?

Online Courses

Who Is It Best For?

Membership Sites

Who Is It Best For?

Digital Downloads

Who Is It Best For?

Written by

Len Markidan

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