Want to make money online? Here's what sells

Let me take one more swing at killing the zombie belief that “No one can make money online.”

Consumers are spending billions of dollars online each year, with $165 billion by U.S. consumers on e-commerce alone, back in 2010. And if people are spending money, someone else must be making it.

So why can’t we slay this zombie? Perhaps the reason why so many print veterans continue to peddle the line that money’s unavailable online is that so many of them are infatuated with getting people to pay for one of the few things that the public shown it won’t pay for online:

Webpage content.

Perhaps it’s too late to try to convince anyone at one of the big newspaper chains to quit blowing so much time and money trying to craft a paywall strategy that isn’t a total disaster. But here are five alternatives to paywalls that are working right now for content publishers who are willing to look instead at revenue streams the market is supporting.


With nearly $40 billion being spent on online advertising this year, someone’s cashing in on ad sales. And it’s not all getting divvied up into infinitesimal amounts by an infinite number of publishers, either. CPMs of $10 and more are easily achievable online, but only for publishers who deliver a community of readers that advertisers want to reach.

Publishers who complain about sub-$1 CPMs too often are putting up pages that fail to gather any community of readers, getting instead only itinerant hits from search engine users, who bounce away as quickly as they find the site. (I wish those publishers would learn to shift resources from obsessive SEO tweaking to true community-building instead.)

You don’t need a high-priced (or high-pressure) sales team to earn ad income, either. In fact, in my experience I’ve found that the harder you work to make a sale, the more likely that advertiser will be to decline to renew the contract. Build a large, engaged community of readers, and advertisers who want to reach those readers will come to you. And stick with you, too.


Yeah, I’ve been hammering this topic for the past year. But that’s because it works. So let’s say it one more time: Apps are for functionality – eBooks are for content. If you want to do in-depth, original reporting – different from the day-to-day commodity blog fodder that fills so many news websites – eBooks can be your savior. This is the medium in which people willingly pay from $.99 to $19.99 each for high-quality, long-form, readable reporting.

Sure, it’s more work to edit your in-depth reporting into eBook form. But a good evergreen title can continue to earn you money for years after publication. Newspapers have been turning top content into books for years. EBook publishing reduces the cost barrier to entry for this market, allowing reporters to turn out more titles and at lower cost than ever before.

The challenge? As always, marketing. You’ll be lost in the depths of Amazon’s and Apple’s listings unless you can get your title onto its category bestseller lists. So you’ll need to make an immediate impact with strong initial sales to your website’s readership community. For an online journalist, that community of readers – familiar with and loyal to your work – is the asset that gives you the advantage over other eBook writers.


The online video market isn’t as developed as the eBook market, but people continue to pay for high-quality original video content via Blu-Ray and DVD. If you work in video, and have the ability and patience to edit your best work into Blu-Ray/DVD packages, many in your community will be willing to pay to own a high-quality version of your best work. Keep your eye on direct download sales through Amazon and Apple, too.

As the line between video journalist and documentarian blurs, video journalists have an opportunity to make some extra money repackaging their work for a growing market of documentary fans. (And if you don’t believe that market is growing – ask people you know how many non-fiction films and TV shows they watched before the Internet, including Netflix streaming, versus how much they watch now.)


Yeah, opening a CafePress store with your brand logo is cliche. But if you’ve built a true online community (there’s that word again), people in that community will gladly pay to have high-quality merchandise that identifies them as a member of the community. Think about stuff that members of your community use on a daily basis, and consider what might appropriately carry community branding. (An example? For our violin website, we’re ordering tote bags for sheet music – from a local silkscreener, not an online on-demand printer such as CafePress.)

Sure, this is ancillary revenue. But putting your community’s identity physically on community members helps promote and expand the community. Which then helps make your site that much more attractive to advertisers while expanding the market for your eBooks and videos. Merchandise is an important step in the synergy of community building.

The key is, again, having a real community to which members feel loyal. No one cares about “branding.” They care about “identity.” If people identify with their community, they will buy, wear and use your merchandise. If not, don’t expect people to bother promoting your brand.


Wearing the T-shirt helps people feel like they’re part of a community. But attending a community event confirms it. People crave community and often want to meet in person the people they’ve gotten to know virtually online. In most online communities, this will happen without your guidance or participation. But there’s money to be made here by being the one who makes it happen.

Again, you don’t have to see events as revenue sources on their own. Simply holding free events helps strengthen your community’s loyalty, which encourages members to spread the word. But if you want to take it up a level, event management can be a lucrative part of your offerings, depending upon the interests and affluence of the market you serve.

See a constant here? See a consistent element in all of these economic possibilities? See a word I keep typing, again and again?

Yep, it’s community. All of these revenue streams open to a journalist who stops thinking narrowly about his or her job as news publishing and starts thinking about it more broadly as community leadership. Reporting the news ought to remain the focus of your work – fresh information about the community will be its primary draw. But don’t let your job end there. Don’t just think about the news your report. Think about the people who read it. What do they need? How can you help them make their lives easier, more fulfilling and more rewarding? How can you relieve their pain?

Answer those questions and you’re taking the step from mere news publisher to community leader. Not only will you be doing more good for that community, you’ll be opening up new worlds of revenue potential for your business, as well.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. As far as Merchandise and Events are concerned I think that only really well developed businesses can ever hope to capitalize on these sources of income. Small to medium size businesses simply haven’t a hope.

    I do fully agree that ebooks are a great way to increase earnings. However my concern is with trying to compete with the likes of Amazon, Apple and the many others out there that have the power to keep you out of the listings.

    I think that rebrandable ebooks that you can give away for free however, from services like Loyaltepays, where the actual level of the quality of the content is quite high and from some respected authors such as Whitedovebooks Will Edwards, might just be the best way to make money with ebooks.

    By the same token you can also have embedded videos and images as advertisements from the same source, all rebrandable should you wish, so I think the advertising, ebooks and videos sections from this article contain generally very good advice.

  2. Great tips Robert, thank you.

    Also good points made by Paul