I’m going to be brutally honest here.

If you already have a website and you’re asking that question, you’re in trouble.

Think about translating that to the real world. Would you lease a business space, spend the money to paint it and decorate it, advertise a grand opening and then, when people started to trickle in, ask “how am I going to make money here?”

And yet, because the cost of entry is so low online, that’s exactly what a lot of solopreneurs do.

They think, “I’ll start a blog about topic XYZ because I know a lot of people are interested in it.” So they create a site, add some content, and then wonder how to monetize. I’ve done it myself.

Once in a while a blogger stumbles into wild success with this non-strategy, but these cases are extremely rare. It’s not a model you should follow.

A better approach is to have a clear business idea before you upload your first post.

Basic Types of Monetization

There are only three basic types of income you can earn online.

  1. Passive. This includes ads and affiliate links.
  2. Selling Services. If you provide a service, you can sell it online. This includes services you provide online like freelance writing, design, or programming; teaching and tutoring; life coaching. It also includes real-world services like dog walking, real estates sales/rental, or making custom furniture.
  3. Selling Products. These can be products you create, or other people’s products for which you receive a commission.

Of course, you can use any combination of the three.

Let’s talk about each of these.

Passive Income Sources

This monetization method seems like it would be the easiest, and is often the first that a new blogger thinks of. However, it only works after you’ve developed a reasonable amount of traffic to your site. There’s no point at all in slapping ads all over your site when the only regular visitor is your mom and your cousin.

Advertising. You can sell advertising space directly, or you can join an ad network, or both. If you decide to approach potential advertisers directly, they should complement your subject area but not compete with it.

For example, a “mommy blog” in the US might negotiate with Gap Kids and Toys ‘R Us to advertise on her site. A site devoted to men’s fitness could advertise athletic shoes and clothing.

Be prepared for them to ask questions about your traffic. In print media, ad prices are based on readership. Online, it’s more often CPM (clicks per thousand readers), so they’re asking legitimate, business-based questions, they’re not just being nosy.

Ad Networks. The best known ad network is Google AdWords. If your site is accepted into the program (and they do make you jump through a few hoops), they’ll serve ads of their choice in spots that you designate on your site. Google will allow you to opt out of certain companies’ advertising, so you can exclude ads from direct competitors.

WordPress also has its own ad network, called WordAds.

Affiliate Marketing. As an affiliate marketer, you link to the company’s sales page. When one of your readers clicks the link and buys something, you receive a commission.

Sometimes you can become an affiliate by contacting the company directly, as with online retailer Amazon. More often, they work through a network. Well known affiliate networks include Shareasale, Rakuten Linkshare, and CJ Affiliate.

If you’re going the affiliate marketing route, many companies want to see your site and have information about it before accepting you as an affiliate. Also, be aware that CJ Affiliate will penalize you if you don’t have a minimal amount of activity after a certain time period has elapsed. They call it “dormancy,” and they say this:

“A publisher account that does not generate any “commissionable” transactions for a period of six months will be deactivated and a non-refundable $10.00 (US) Dormant Account Fee will be assessed. Moral of the story: don’t apply to CJ until you can generate solid website traffic that will lead to conversions and are ready to commit to your goals as an internet marketer. Unless you have a website that is ready to convert, jumping into affiliate marketing before you’re ready could end up costing you time and money.”

As with choosing advertisers, choose the companies you affiliate with carefully. They should provide something your readers are interested in, that does not compete directly with you. If your site is all about learning WordPress, for example, ads and affiliates for WordPress themes and hosting companies are targeted and appropriate. However, if you’re a WordPress theme developer, you probably don’t want to promote another theme company.

Pros: It’s scalable. As your traffic grows, you can charge more for the same advertising space, and your affiliate links are seen and clicked by more readers.

Cons: Clicking an affiliate link in or an ad sends readers away from your site. It takes a lot of clicks to make significant income with advertising and affiliate links.

Selling Services

There are lots of services that can be provided in the cloud, and even more that have to take place in person. You can market both through a website.

This is probably the fastest way to monetize your website. If you already have a business, use your website to attract buyers and convert them to paying customers. (Details of how to do that are for another day and another post.)

One of my favorite examples of success in selling services through a website is Marcus Sheridan. In 2008, he had a swimming pool company that was about to go out of business as the US economy tanked. He started a website, called River Pools.

Now, I don’t know about you, but selling swimming pools is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about selling services online.

It’s a good thing it occurred to Marcus, though. Not only did he save the company, but today it does very well. Marcus has since parlayed that experience into a consulting business where he teaches, coaches, and advises solopreneurs. He also travels around the world, speaking at marketing events.

Listen to Joe Pulizzi from CMI tell the story.

Pros: It’s the quickest way to get revenue flowing, and you can earn a very comfortable living.

Cons: It’s not scalable, since you’re trading your time for money.

Selling Physical or Digital Products

In the early days of the internet, selling physical products online was hard. First, of course, you had to attract and convert buyers. Then you had to figure out how to collect their money, which often involved an expensive credit card servicing account.

Add the hassles of order fulfillment and shipping, and it usually wasn’t something a solopreneur could handle.

Fast forward to today, and it’s much simpler. You still have to attract and convert buyers, of course. But you have low-cost payment options like PayPal, and you can even set up your order fulfillment through third-party companies like Amazon that handle the payment and shipping for you as well.

Pros: If you’re using a third-party fulfillment center, it’s completely scalable.

Cons: It takes some time and effort to source products to sell.

Selling digital products is even simpler. There are excellent e-commerce plugins available for WordPress that display your catalog of goods and take care of the ordering. Then the customer simply downloads the product.

Best of all, there’s an enormous, and growing, demand for digital content. For example, online courses are estimated to be a 15 billion dollar business this year.

Digital products can include things like:

  • e-books
  • courses
  • video
  • audio
  • photography
  • art

A membership site is another type of digital product. You place your best content — in whatever format you choose — behind the membership firewall. There are lots of plugin options for creating a membership site with WordPress.

Pros: Once you’ve created the e-book or the course, or shot and processed the photos, your work is done. Whether 10 people buy it or 10,000 do, you’ve invested your time only once.

Cons: Depending on your digital product, ongoing followup could become a time suck, so keep this in mind when you’re creating.

No Limits

You can earn income from your online business with any combination of these strategies. Start by selling a service, then add a digital product and sell some affiliate products or services. Create a physical product as well. Turn your digital product into a course.

You’ll be limited only by the industry you’re in and your own creativity.