Out with the old media. In with the new. Traditional media companies are struggling to stay afloat because everybody and everything is online now. All you need to do is generate some online content (like a blog) and join an affiliate network. You grab advertising banners from the network, and the readers who find your site (because of your riveting, fresh content) click the ads, buy the goods, and you make loads of money. Sound familiar?
That’s the hype at least. The reality is quite different. Daniel Lyons, a Newsweek columnist who spent two years pretending to be Steve Jobs on his wildly popular blog, couldn’t do it, so what makes you think you can?
I don’t mean to take the wind out of your sails. It’s true that there is a lot of money swishing around the Internet, with more advertising dollars making their way to the Web all the time. (According to the census bureau at the Dept. of Commerce, eCommerce is expected to reach $300 billion in 2012.) I just want you to have realistic expectations if you decide you want to be a Web publisher.
It’s true that the barriers to entry are low enough that anyone can do it. It costs next to nothing to set up a blog, forum or website these days. And it’s true that there are hundreds of affiliate networks you can join where you can grab banners from online advertisers. But the ease of entry makes it that much harder for you to succeed. (How many musicians do you know who have their music on Facebook and MySpace, etc. but have never made a dime?)
So I apologize if I tricked you into reading this post thinking you’d get rich quick. After all, that’s what all the other blogs seem to suggest, so that’s probably what you were expecting, right? Rather, I want to give you some things to consider before you jump in. That way you’ll jump in with your eyes open. And you just might want to take some lessons from traditional media companies (yes, I know they are struggling too) if and when you do.
First, remember that content is king. I should qualify that to read “good” content. Look at newspapers. Even though newspapers have been losing readers, there is still a good reason why they can sell advertising space. Their readers are picking up the paper because of its news content. I believe that newspapers are the best organizations for generating news, and will be for many years to come.
One advantage of being an online publisher is your ability to generate news or other content at a hyper-local level. Although newspapers can report news on a local level, they will still cover general news at that level. Web publishers can provide information for small niches, but if the readers who are interested in those niches don’t find the site’s information to be valuable, they won’t be back. And with no readers, you won’t be generating any ad revenues. Just because you can place ads on your site from an affiliate network, if nobody is on your site to click through those banners, you won’t be getting any commissions from those ads. So your silver bullet would be to 1) have a site that covers a specific topic so well that it is a must-read site for people interested in that topic, 2) have ads on your site that tie closely to your content so that your readers have a greater proclivity for clicking them. Sure, newspapers will have mattress ads and plumber ads and personals because they have a general readership. You probably won’t (and probably shouldn’t) have a general readership, so don’t accept general ads.
Second, don’t rely solely on affiliate networks for your advertising revenue. Networks are great resources. They are a great way of getting relevant ads on your site by outsourcing that duty to someone else. And they should pay more than Google AdSense. But there is a personal element to selling. Advertisers like to know who they are dealing with. This is why local newspapers have such a great connection with their business communities. They have sales people interacting with local business owners constantly, and the business owners place ads in the paper.
If you have no interaction with your advertisers (and most affiliate networks won’t allow you access to those advertisers), you don’t have a lot of control over the ads on your site. You may get great commissions from an advertiser on your site only to find the advertiser is no longer associated with your affiliate network because the network rep who had the relationship with that advertiser left for another network.
To counteract this, you need to sell your site to advertisers directly. Yes, this is outside sales. Yes, you probably aren’t a sales person. And yes, it takes work. But business owners (or in your case, website publishers) are often the best sales people because 1) they understand their products better than anyone else, and 2) they are passionate about their business. They believe in it. And advertisers appreciate being associated with a business or website that the owner believes in and will be constantly improving.
That brings us to the third point: put in the work. Some people think that the rules of the real world don’t apply to the Internet. They’re wrong. Whether your business is bricks and mortar or virtual, it is still a business. And running a business takes work.