Mar 21, 2021
6 mins read
A path for scrupulous content creators.
The easiest way to make money online is to strike a deal with the Devil. You sell your soul to Amazon and others when you become an affiliate marketer and shill their products. You sell it to Google and others when you run their questionable ads for gawd-knows-what on your site and in your videos or when you give them access to your audience's data. Make no mistake: the shrewd (and a lot of them) make money doing this. The question is: When you honestly look at the ethics of these methods, can you do them—and still sleep at night?
While you may think all opportunities for content creators to make good money are innocent, they bring with them questionable business practices:
- Affiliate marketing is so ethically nefarious, it's regulated by the FTC. By law, you must include a disclaimer in your content to reveal you're getting a kickback from Amazon or others when you post affiliate links to their products. No matter how pure your intention, the savvy in your audience sees an affiliate disclaimer and thinks: "Oh, they get paid to say that."
- Tracking cookies are harmless...aren't they? Then why does the EU require that your visitors give permission for your site to install tracking cookies on their browser? It's because you're handing your visitors' privacy over to ad networks that track their online behavior. And you have no control over what these networks advertise on your site or what they do with your audience's data.
- Third-party ads are not the ones you put there for your own products or services, but the ones that you've allowed ad networks to put there or run during your videos. Your audience is likely getting burned out on all these. Why else would 27% of internet users pay for an ad blocker? If you use third-party ads, you're forcing your audience to sit through multiple commercials on YouTube before they can view your content. Or forcing them to dig like archaeologists on your pages to find your content buried in all those questionable ads.
Every day, these business practices fall are under more scrutiny. So I stopped putting my audience through all this.
There has to be a less-sinful way to make money from your content.
Make no mistake: Use of the questionable techniques above seems to be growing exponentially. But the negativity towards them from your audience grows too. So if you go against this trend like I did and have the added expense of paying for your site and paying to host videos on Vimeo in order to have complete control over your audiences' experience and data—how can you make money?
Patronage: The backlash to an ad-full Internet.
As creators, we're at the dawn of a new age where the audience is willing to pay you directly for your content, instead of suffering through a gauntlet of ads, questionable endorsements, pop-up permissions and privacy invasions. This is materializing as a few different models and fortunately for us here, Buy Me a Coffee handles them all.
- The Tip Model. This requires you to give away some (or all) of your content in hopes a portion of your audience will tip you for it. What I've found is when you invest the time in creating really thorough and meaningful content (as in your "A" material) it's a lot more likely to be rewarded with a cup of coffee.
- The Subscription Model. Subscriptions are becoming a norm for every consumer. People are willing to pay for what they find most valuable, like Netflix or Amazon Prime. As an example of how successful the subscription model is, the Washington Post has 3 million digital subscribers and the New York Times has 6 million. And the subscription model doesn't just apply to big media. Ben Thompson's Stratechery, a newsletter on insights in tech, is estimated to have tens of thousands of subscribers paying $10 a month. So one guy is charging just a little bit less than what WaPo and NYT combined charge, and getting it. By offering your audience a continuing stream of great content, especially if it's on a focused topic, you may find they're willing to support your efforts on a continuing basis. It's like being part of an exclusive club.
- The Goal Model. This is the Kickstarter model. If you've amassed an audience, they can get caught up in the frenzy of helping you reach a goal. There's often a promise attached that they'll be rewarded later with some type of bonus content, like the album or book you're working on, in exchange for their support. What's fascinating is that some people, who heavily debate spending $25 on anything, are willing to immediately fork over $100 for a Kickstarter project that may never materialize.
There's no reason why you can't use all three models. But, it would require you to be prolific in your content creation.
The truth: The majority of your audience will never buy you a coffee.
Ever notice how online companies that offer their service for free suffer a huge backlash once they run out of startup dollars and start charging? Or services that remain free like Twitter, Instagram and Reddit get constant gripes when they run more ads to remain profitable. That's because 90% of that audience is just there for a free lunch. As a content creator, you've likely found that the biggest whiners are usually the people who'll never pay. It may be disheartening that most of your audience will never buy you a coffee, subscribe or help your reach your goal, but these aren't the people you want to focus on. They want something for nothing and that's what they're willing to pay for the content you create.
That vital 10%.
You want to focus on that small percentage who value what you provide enough to become your patron. The $5.6 billion pledged so far on Kickstarter is a strong indication that there are plenty of people out there who want to support creation. The patronage market is big and getting bigger. It's fueled by people who want to be part of something. And if that's your success, it benefits you both.
If you've gifted your audience with great content, some will give back by buying you a coffee. If you've delivered great content through a subscription, you're likely to keep that audience as you grow your subscriber base. And the goal should be to grow your crowd so that 10% becomes big enough to fund you.
A little risk. A lot of honesty.
Being realistic, I know that no one making a handsome living from ethically-questionable methods is going to give up that phat income stream overnight for the risk of changing to a more ethical model. But it never hurts to survey your audience, ask some control questions to weed out the 90% who will never pay and find out if that 10% is willing to support you. If you didn't force ads on them, would they pay for your content? If you dropped affiliate links, would they trust your recommendations more? If you removed tracking, would they be willing to pay for that privacy? Would they be willing to support you with a small $10 annual subscription if you locked down that rate for them as you start charging new subscribers more?
When you're honest and let your core audience know how the change would benefit them, you may find many of them are open to this pay model. Maybe they'd show their support. And maybe when you lay your head down on that pillow at night, you'd sleep a little easier.
Full disclosure: BMAC pays us all referral fees when someone joins through your BMAC page.