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Blog Monetization Outside the Box

This guest post is by Matthew Kepnes of Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site.

Someone once told me that the only way to make money with a blog is to sell massive amounts of text links. “There’s no other way,” he said, and he was resolute in his opinion.

I couldn’t change his mind, so I just listened and nodded my head. I didn’t bother to argue, even though I knew he was wrong. I know plenty of people who make money online and they don’t do it by selling text links. Yet lots of people seem to think that the only way to make money with a blog is through text link sales. When I hear people say this, I often think to myself, “You only think this way because you aren’t thinking outside the box. You aren’t being creative enough.”

Don’t get me wrong. Text links can be good money. I’ve sold text links in the past, and I know many sites that still do. Those sites still rank highly in Google, and they still have good PageRank. Sites that sell text links are controversial, especially after the JC Penny controversy, and I won’t get into whether or not you should sell text links.

This post is about a larger issue: the idea that without text links, you can’t make money online. I think that is a great fallacy and it is a line of thinking that is perpetually argued by those who are stuck in the box.

Outside the box

When most people think of the phrase, “think outside the box,” they imagine a big boardroom of people brainstorming the next big idea. There’s some guy at the head of the table going, “Come on, people, we need to think outside the box on this one!” and then everyone at the table looks around nervously at each other, unsure of what to do.

However, thinking outside the box, as contrived of a statement maybe, is the only way to succeed with a blog.

When most people think of monetization, they think AdSense, sponsored posts, affiliate sales, or text links. But the biggest sites in the world don’t use any of those techniques. They get more creative than that.

Let me give you two examples.

First, take a site like Zen Habits by Leo Babuta. It’s a popular site on simple living that probably gets over 500,000 visitors per month. But it didn’t start that way. Leo grew the site every day, and he has made it a point to never sell advertising on the site. It is completely ad-free, and his site eventually allowed him to quit his job and focus on what he loved doing.

So what is on his site? Ebooks. Leo created a trusted brand and now people buy his books to learn more. The site even got him a real, physical-book deal. By focusing on delivering what his readers wanted, Leo was able to develop a following of loyal fans that supported him by buying his products.

Everyone has an ebook these days, but the most successful ebooks are completely unique. For example, everyone seems to have an ebook on how to travel the world these days, but I decided to think outside of the box. I launched a new ebook that offers a bit of a spin on the traditional travel ebook by lining up travel companies and offering exclusive discounts in the book worth over $700 USD. Now, my book is more than just another travel book on the internet. I found something people weren’t doing, I did it, and I also created a better way for my readers to save money.

Secondly, look at the lifecaster, iJustine. All she does is video-blog her life. She didn’t just start a website and think, “I’m going to sell text ads.” No, she did something unique and cutting-edge. She thought outside the box. (And the fact that she is a beautiful blonde certainly helps!) She started doing crazy stuff online like singing and dancing in Apple stores and she got a great following. Now, she gets sponsorships and speaking deals. (After all, you can’t put text links on YouTube!)

Take guest blogging, for example. I focus on travel, but this isn’t a travel site. I guest blog on finance blogs, life hacking sites, and a wide range of other topics. I do this to leverage my knowledge into other fields, because, after all, everyone likes to travel and everyone likes to save money. So when I blog on other niches, I let people know I’m an expert in travel to people who would never have come into my own niche on their own. But many bloggers never do this. They only stay in their niche—but if you do this, you have nowhere to grow. Think laterally. Blog in niches that are similarly related. Don’t always get stuck in your niche.

Experimentation pays

It’s important to continue acting outside of the box. You should always be trying something new. In the words of Thomas Edison, “I didn’t fail; I just tried 1,000 ways that didn’t work.” You must be willing to experiment, take risks, and lose in order to finally win. I’ve tried Facebook ads, AdWords, guest posting, using AdSense, not using AdSense, Facebook ads again, different hostel booking engines, and flight engines in order to see what works and what doesn’t. I’ll try new products and services. I am always testing. I’m always experimenting to find that perfect mix.

If you limit the online game to text links and banner ads, you will fail. My friend is right. You won’t make any money. Even with over 100,000 visitors a month, I still have trouble attracting banner ads. The ad space in travel just isn’t there yet. So I got creative, I found ways to expand my audience beyond just travel blogs, and I figured out how to expand my income beyond text ads. I experimented. I tried. I failed. I keep trying. I keep failing. I keep experimenting. And in the long run, I succeed.

There are many ways to make it online. Those who have made it have done it by bucking conventional wisdom and thinking outside the box. They got creative. They went right when everyone was going left. If you also want to make it with your blog, you must do the same. Narrow thinking won’t help you last on the Internet. Be bold. Be daring. And when you are, you’ll be successful.

Do you think outside the box when it comes to monetizing your blog? Let us know in the comments.

Matthew Kepnes has been traveling around the world for the past four years. He runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site and has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian UK, AOL’s Wallet Pop, and Yahoo! Finance. He currently writes for AOL Travel and The Huffington Post For more information, you can visit his Facebook page or sign up for his RSS feed.

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Comments

  1. mario_monk says:

    Here’s a thought. If you promote your own product, it’s still advertising. I mean it’s no different if you promote your own book or other author’s work (besides the “who gets a bigger pie”).
    People who can be all-in-one, that is who can write brilliant content, create high conversion ads, and create very good products are very rare. And this is why we have advertising.
    Some advertise their own products, some advertise someone else’s products. But in this step (promotion) they are doing the same thing.

    • Good point. Then again, a good blogger should be able to write good content. And if you can write good content, then you might be able to turn it into a book.

      I suppose that some bloggers do not focus on writing original content–they are primarily curators of news. While I believe that the best bloggers are going to inevitably have to write original content, those who do not can still make money without advertising someone else’s products. Perhaps they can create t-shirts, coffee mugs, or other merchandise. Perhaps they can have readers pay to become members.

  2. Good post. Very inspiring. Everyone is writing an ebook these days. Makes me think I should start giving it some serious consideration. I think I could write something useful–perhaps a “100 Myths About ____” sort of deal.

    • I have always thought that I cannot write an ebook because it is “too hard”. You know about that sort of mentality, don’t you. ;) Anyway, your article really boosted my confidence levels and inspired me to start writing one. Thank you very much for yet another great article. ;)

    • Hey Chris,

      If all bloggers are offering ebooks, why should you consider it? Wouldn’t this be following the crowd? I find it much more fascinating to brainstorm on what comes after the golden area of ebooks. We could be the first to do that. After all, isn’t an e-book just a blogpost published in a different format?

      What do you think?

      • Nomadic Matt says:

        I have a few ebooks but I don’t think ebooks are for everyone or for every niche. Too many people simply create books for the sake of creating a way to make money. A better way would be to see if your book can become a course or product that can be used to make something more personal.

      • LLoyd says:

        I agree with you here Phillip!
        The internet is saturated with ebooks, yet everyone thinks they still need one. I’ve been victim of this and still find myself writing an ebook. The only difference is I’m not producing it as a main revenue stream. I consider it an advertisement.
        An advertisement to someday lead into what comes after the ebook era.

  3. Alex Berger says:

    Nice post Matt, it’s definitely a challenge and an interesting one at that.

  4. Jo says:

    Great blog, I really like the part about when you try you may fail and then try and try again, I think it is too easy in life to give up when we at first don’t succeed. But if we never failed we would never learn.

  5. Truly inspiring post!

    I’m glad you mention Leo’s approach. Ad Free is a very good solution for a successful blog!

  6. yes, we have to try new ways always, think crazy and be out of crowd…we can offer different services too :0 that will be an awesome way to earn money .

  7. Dave says:

    I agree you need to diversify income streams, especially if you want to make a living from blogging, and being ad-free is ideal. But at the same time, I think every blogger will define success differently. There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of being a success.

    “If you limit the online game to text links and banner ads, you will fail.”

    I disagree. It comes back to the goals bloggers set for themselves. If a food blogger’s goal is to make some extra money to buy a nice meal in their city once a month, then selling a text link may help them reach that goal. They enjoy the good meal that extra $100+ gets them, and then can write about it on their blog. That blogger is a success, and may decide to set more aggressive goals in the future, or not.

    Of course if another food blogger’s goal is to earn a living from their blog, and eat out at Michelin quality restaurants around the world, relying on text link sales alone won’t get them there. Like you said, they’ll need to get more creative.

  8. Max Bronson says:

    Hi Matthew,
    You are going against the grain by saying to guest post outside your niche and I like it. Many Internet marketers say that if you blog outside your niche, you will increase traffic without significantly increasing sales. They’ll tell you to focus on your niche or very closely related niches.

    However, I agree with you. By guest posting outside your niche, you’re slowly increasing the range of your expertise and so what if you only get a few more customers. Those few may become long term customers and end up promoting your product through word of mouth for you.

    Cheers,
    Max

    • I believe Matthew gave a good reason why guest posting outside his niche works for him. His blog is about a very wide topic that attracts an audience from all different niches – everyone travels or takes a vacation.

      This strategy will work for a lot of bloggers but not necessarily for all. Analyze your target audience, learn who they are, what they are interested in, what kind of information they are looking for and find out where to meet that audience. In Matthew’s case there is a great variety of places where he can find new readers.

      • Nomadic Matt says:

        I think it works for more niches than you might think. Say you have a pet blog. You could write on a finance site about how to cut down the cost of pet care or on a family site about how to deal with pets when you have a baby.

        There’s always a way.

        • LLoyd says:

          I have to say I agree with Matt on this one.
          While Phillip is right about Matt’s niche and his website format, I believe the message of this article speaks truths to anyone in the blogging community who wants to make money from their work.

          I read once that we are only limited by our own reality. The trick is to expand what you think is real and broaden your own definition. Then, and only then, will you be able to do more than what you thought was capable.

  9. I have never guest posted yet, but I do visit and comment on blogs that are not in my niche. Often, as a result I get visitors that come to my site and spend a good deal of time reading my content.

    I haven’t had much success with adsense, affiliate marketing, or text link ads myself. It’s time to get creative and think outside the box.

  10. Ralph Kooi says:

    But thinking outside of the box, if everyone is writing an ebook, should you?
    Perhaps outside the box is (just on the top of my head)

    - Video diary/book/course (no idea how you would call that).
    - Get a payment platform in place were you get 0.05 cents per articles (mass market theory)
    - 1 on 1 consulting (not very new but still)

    Ta,

    Ralph

  11. I enjoyed this quite a bit. I think the default way to try and “make it” is going by the book and doing it better than others. The problem is that others have already come close to perfecting it. The other option – creativity. Creative success is much more satisfying than copying someone else (not speaking from experience, but from mental projections of success each way).

  12. Chris Jones says:

    You shared a nice way of monetizing.For most AdSense, Chitika,text link ads and affiliate programs are the only income streams for making money from websites. But you just introduced a less walked way of monetization.It’s True that promoting your own products and services (like ebooks) are more creative than using ads.

  13. Sarah says:

    Perhaps, and I am being very optimistic here, that I benefit from not know what the box is.

  14. It’s funny that I’ve never sold a text link in my life (unless you count sponsored reviews from my previous blog). I’ve always made money through outside-the-box methods. And it’s fun that way, keeps life interesting and it expands people’s horizon by not limiting to saturated markets or ways of monetization.

  15. Mansi says:

    Keeping your blog ad-free also makes your visitors think that you are blogging because you really have fun doing it. Not because you are after money by fooling someone to visit your website.

    Regards,
    Mansi

  16. Ad free but relying on relationship building newsletters seems to be the trend these days.

  17. Lara Solomon says:

    I have developed ebooks etc, but my trouble is actually selling them, anyone have any tips as to how you can sell them on your blog, I only have about 5000 unique visitors a month.

  18. gp says:

    I am curious, why did you stop having text link?

  19. At times the monetization also depends on your niche…not all techniques work for every niche :)

  20. I have an AdSense account, an Amazon Associates account, and an account with My Likes. I’m not sure how I feel about them. I figured it would be a way to bring in a few pennies here and there. So far only My Likes has brought anything and it wasn’t much. I don’t want to be seen as a spammer, so I don’t share the links from Amazon or My Likes very much.

    I’ve been trying to think of ways that I could generate income through blogging or the internet in general because I am a graduate student and trying to care for a husband and two children (and two pets).

    My blog is egocentric. While I do book reviews, small business reviews, and share news and information from around the internet (among other types of posts), I tend to relate most everything back to myself, my husband, my children, and my pets. I’m not sure how to go about monetizing without changing my format or starting a new blog.

  21. Nice Post!… I have started to do this and it seems to be working!…

    All the best & drop me an email if you like,

    David Edwards

  22. Dastan says:

    Great post!! i have looking for this. i think im ready to start… hope it succesfully :D

  23. I want to bring a different idea from my professiona realm of photojournalism. Being different from the mainstream in most cases pays off. So if all photographers shoot from one area, can you shoot from a completely different one? This brings me to ebooks. Everyone does ebooks, so the question is: how can you stand out from the crowd? Especially when it’s so saturated. Maybe offer a video book instead, or a game, or something unique. But, of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write one. Think how you can be different from mainstream when writing it, you will sell quicker and better than mainstream.

  24. I’m not your typical target audience here as I honestly have little (if any) interest in actually “monetizing” my little blog. Moreso, as a life-long entrepreneur (I started my own adventure travel company specializing in Belize waaaaay back before most folks had even HEARD of that country), I’m just ever fascinated by how such works (blog marketing/monetization, etc). And I can tell you that Matt has hit upon a spot-on array of “TOTB” tricks. “…go right when everybody else is going left”, “…take risks”, “…think laterally” – indeed!

    Had I chosen a more conventional destination (say… Jamaica, Aruba, Barbados or the Bahamas) back in the 80′s (rather than a sweet little unknown country – I’d have to say “Belize, you know, British Honduras” – that had the misfortune of being set amid Central America, a region that at the time was being heralded on the 6pm news channel as fraught with machine-gun toting “contras”, albeit in Nicaragua, nowhere NEAR the peaceful little land of Belize – uh, I surely would have failed. I took a risk, put my money on teetering along the leading edge of travel at the time – and it paid off. Belize eventually became the next new “hot destination” that everybody flocks to today.

    Conversely, where I or anyone today to try to break into Belize as a lone specialty biz, they’d be bucking a bazillion other travel biz wannabees, and would likely fail.

    In short (a mot concept I fear I shall never master!) – Matt’s tips on TOTB, experimenting/ever testing this and that, not getting stuck in your (narrow) niche, taking risks and going against the direction of the current “crowd” – all simple yet brilliant advice for succeeding in ANY biz – be it online or whatever.

  25. Wojo says:

    I generally agree with your reasoning, but I also see advertising as more of an evolution–we shouldn’t forget that even Leo started with AdSense and PPV ads in his sidebar. What I’m more curious about is if it’s more of an Internet-wide evolution, or if it’s something every blog has to go through as they grow. I have a feeling it’s a bit of both.

  26. Matthew,
    My business partners and I were just having this discussion the other day: which do we focus on? Driving traffic to our site to move products? Pushing our affiliate program with other sites? Pushing other sites’ affiliate programs to make some money through them? Adding a strong Google Ads campaign to our page? Or promoting our information products (read: eBooks/Video training courses)?

    These are difficult decisions, especially when certain ones mean (almost) guaranteed money… while others mean (potentially) MORE money. You’ve approached these topics in an interesting way, and I’m forwarding this article to my partners to reopen our discussions. Fantastic work Matthew!

  27. Amazed to see a blog going ad-free these days. Ebook is a good way to monetize if you’ve the writing skills.

  28. Foxcrawl says:

    Suppose this post is designated for those who own very popular blogs. The beginners should start easily with adsense, etc and then experiment other stuff. Of course it is normal to think outside the box, otherwise it will become boring to blog. right?
    p/s: unfortunately my older blog was temporarily banned by google, therefore now i am a beginner:(
    Cheers

  29. The only problem is..since it’s an out-of-the-box solution, most of us (including myself perhaps) is struggling to think outside of the box!

    Apart from AdSense, Amazon affiliates, SocialSpark, and a couple of others, I haven’t thought of any other ways to make money yet. Have a few ideas like selling own branded gadgets or things like that, but they are just very generic ideas

  30. Fran Civile says:

    I really enjoyed your post Matt!
    It inspired so many good ideas as seen in the above comments and solidified a few of my own ideas.

    With my marketing blog I don’t want to place any ads or monetization, but hope to make some income from readers buying the products I review with my aff/link. That will eventually be increased by the sales of my own ebooks.

    Fran :)

  31. Praveen says:

    Being unique, will earn more for us, thinking outside the box is unique because not many people are thinking outside the box, Nice post, enjoyed it, Cheers !

  32. soubhiks says:

    great post yet again

    i feel thinking out of the box may not work always, sometimes you will need to experiment the various proven ways to sell your blog, experiment unless you find one that clicks your need, that gives you more sales :).

  33. Allen Walker says:

    Yes, thinking outside the box when it comes to monetization can definitely yield good rewards, and is something that I do on a regular basis. :)

    But part of personal taste, I would rather go with an ad-free blog, and use other more highly creative methods of monetization instead.

  34. It is received wisdom (but I think it has a lot of truth in it) that creating their own product should be the ultimate goal of an Internet marketer, if they truly want to reap the rewards of their knowledge and efforts and not spend their whole lives promoting other people’s products in the form of ad space or affiliate marketing etc. Not knocking these models, they have been good for me, but I am very happy to now have my own product that I have invested myself in and can sell safe in the knowledge of its worth.

    And it brings me 100% of the revenue, with no middle man :) (at least until I start my own affiliate program!)

  35. Ulnyr says:

    Good post. Very inspiring.

  36. Gareth Power says:

    Great post, and one that I find both irritating and useful. Irritating because all I ever read about is how other people are making money, and useful because I always know that with a little bit of application and a novel concept, anyone can succeed in this space.

  37. Say says:

    Post is too general. Didn’t even elaborate how to think outside the box… in-depth examples, guides, tools, none. Just name dropping sites and stating the obvious. Sorry but this post is useless.

  38. Mitchell says:

    Good post.I think this says it all…If you are living in a box you can only grow so far and get so big.Event-
    ually you will suffocate your growth or you will have to stop growing in order to breathe in that box Thinking outside the box is a way of life.Take the limits of your mind no matter if your making money online,starting a business, looking to make passive income, or anything in life.