How Not to Make Money on the Internet

As someone who has been running an online business for the last 5 years, I have gained some perspective on what its like to make money on the web. Since it is my livelihood, it’s something I think about constantly. But you might be surprised to know I am rarely thinking about ways to make MORE money. Instead, I find myself wading through the available options and opportunities, trying to decide which methods are acceptable for me, my business, and my audience. The end result is typically significant amounts of money being left on the table. Most times, I simply ask myself, “Would I want to be advertised to in that way?” If I’m not sure, a quick conversation with Nicole usually closes the deal.

Once you have a website with a decent and consistent flow of traffic, opportunities abound! While capitalizing on all those opportunities may line your pockets in the short term, it will no doubt jeopardize your relationship with your audience in the long term. So you really do have to be careful about your choices in monetization options. Now I’m no expert in this area, but I do know what works for me.

I believe a content-producer has the right to monetize till they’re blue in the face and I would never begrudge someone for doing so. But when it comes to my audience, I have a certain level of respect and friendship (if you can imagine such a thing happening with thousands of strangers), that I don’t want to jeopardize. So ultimately, I’d rather lose money and gain respect. After all, if I am smart about my monetization methods, that long-term respect can lead to even greater earnings potential in the future.

It is becoming a habit of mine on this personal blog to let loose some fairly personal details, so let’s keep that theme going by reviewing a few of the monetization opportunities I routinely turn down and why. Again, this in no way meant to be advice or a “how-to”. Most of the time I’m just “winging’ it” anyway! These are just personal opinions, gut feelings, and general principles that I feel make The Wood Whisperer the company that many folks know and love.

First off, here are my three rules concerning advertising:

1. Respect the content!
2. Never mix content and advertising in a deceptive way.
3. Always keep the reader’s/viewer’s experience in mind.

With those in mind, here are the dirty rascals…

Text Link Ads

This monetization method involves partnering with a 3rd party company that combs your site for keywords. If they find a keyword that matches up to an ad they have in the database, the word is hyperlinked. Every time the link is clicked the site owner gets a small amount of revenue. This breaks rule #1 and #2 in a very deceptive way. When I click on a link in an article, I expect this is an item the author is linking to as an extra resource or even a product they specifically recommend. But that is not the case. These links populate based on whatever keywords are in the database and the author has little to no control over them. Fortunately, text link ads are pretty easy to spot as they are typically double-underlined.

I like to think of my articles as mini conversations with my readers. Imagine talking to someone and saying, “So I went into my shop (CHECK OUT SHOP.COM!!) yesterday and used my iPhone (BUY iPHONES HERE FOR CHEAP!) to take pictures of a beautiful maple board (MAPLE FLOORING AT DEEP DISCOUNT PRICES)”. Not only is that annoying and irrelevant, it’s counter-productive to my ultimate goal: keeping people engaged and on my site for as long as possible. It just isn’t worth the $0.15/click to send you away from my site in the middle of our conversation.

Breaking Articles into Multiple Pages

About.com, I’m talking to you! This drives me nuts as a reader. I have a scroll bar on my mouse and I enjoy using it. There is really no need for a small article to be broken up into 4 pages. The only logic I can see behind this is the fact that it boosts page views. If every article takes up 2-3 pages, that’s 2-3 times more page views than if the article appeared on one single page. So its a great way to inflate your numbers to please advertisers. Unfortunately, the reader is on the losing end, having to click through multiple pages to read a very short article.

Facebook Mentions

This is a fairly new one for me. I was recently offered $50 to do nothing more than say, “Check out Website XYZ” on my Facebook page. Much like my Twitter account, every post is coming directly from me. If I post a link, I see it as a genuine recommendation about something I think my audience will enjoy. My reputation is attached to that recommendation. Dropping a meaningless ad in there just feels…..icky. My status updates on social media sites are essentially my words. And at this stage of the game, I just don’t feel the need to monetize my words in that way.

YouTube Description Ads

This is also a fairly new development. I have to routinely turn down offers to insert links into my video descriptions on YouTube. Frankly, these just piss me off so I usually don’t even grace them with a response. YouTube’s linking rules are so stringent that I’m lucky to have my own link in there, let alone someone else’s!

Excerpts in RSS Feeds

When you run a blog, you usually have a choice as to how your RSS feeds appear in readers. You can set it to “Full Article” or “Excerpts”. In my opinion, excerpts are completely counter-productive for the reader and possibly even for the author. They are nothing more than teaser content used to hopefully drive the reader to the source website in the hopes of increasing traffic. But for people who read hundreds of blogs in a reader, its a good way to find yourself booted off their reading list. The way I see it, I want as many eyeballs to see my content as possible. Half of the battle when you produce content online is awareness. Why limit your potential by gimping the technology? This is one of those trade-offs again, right? Is the minor increase in traffic worth the cost of convenience to my readers? For me, the answer is no.

Pre-Roll Video Ads

Now this is the one that will most likely boggle your mind. I know it certainly boggles mine. A few years ago, Blip.tv (my video host) started implementing a robust ad program. You can turn on pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll ads by simply checking a little box. In order to entice you into opting in, they display a little message at the top of your dashboard telling you how much money you COULD be making based on the past performance of your videos. As you can see, I have $1900/month just sitting there, looking all sexy sporting that “come hither” look. Truth is, I have toyed with these ads in the past. And while I will defend my right to turn those ads on, I just can’t get myself to do it. Every time I press play on one of my videos and see an ad for Trojan Condoms, or Febreeze, or Best Buy, a little woodworking gnome dies. It just doesn’t feel right to me. As much video as I consume online, I am completely jaded to pre-roll ads and I think most folks are in the same boat. But as long as we have sponsors on our site, I just can’t justify extending the distance between my viewers and my videos by 30 seconds.  Believe me, it’s incredibly difficult looking at what essentially amounts to my mortgage payment sitting there just waiting for me every month. But I honestly feel that providing a more enjoyable experience on my site leads to more positive juju and more time spent exploring what my site has to offer. Monetization will have to come in other ways.

The Guild

The Wood Whisperer Guild has become, hands down, the largest source of revenue for my business. For those who aren’t familiar, this is the paid membership portion of my website. Having a membership site coupled with a popular free website means I have near constant opportunities to slip in a plug for the Guild. But most times, I just don’t. I will occasionally mention an upcoming build or send out a video featuring a segment from a Guild video. But I make sure the segments are always complete thoughts. No cliff hangers, no teasers, no up-sells. In fact, if you go to the home page now and you don’t know what the Guild is, you’d have a hard time knowing the option even exists! FYI, this will change to some extent with a future iteration of the website. I do plan to make the Guild’s presence a little more obvious.

But despite this lack of a hard sell, the Guild is thriving! Why? I have to believe it is because of some of the things mentioned above. Of course we have great woodworking content and I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into my videos, but I like to think we helped foster a culture of woodworkers that folks just want to be a part of. An honest to goodness grassroots effort where all are welcome to participate and attitudes are checked at the door. Dropping $199 on an online membership takes a lot of trust on the part of the user. And this is where I feel I am getting the most payoff from all of my previous “lofty” views and policies toward advertising and dealing with people. I have established a trusting relationship with my readers and as a result people know what to expect from me. They either think the membership is worth it, or they don’t. There is very little suspicion or debate about whether I will deliver on my promises; only questions about whether what I promise is worth the asking price. When someone does approach me with a sense of doubt about the program, I simply tell them to wait. Enjoy the free site for a few months and make a decision at that time. In the end, they usually wind up joining after a few days. So when asked why I don’t push the Guild more aggressively, the simple answer is (thankfully) because I don’t yet need to.

Sometimes these posts just become a stream of consciousness and I don’t really even know what I expect to accomplish with them. I suppose mostly its a form of therapy for me. I enjoy sitting in my recliner letting the words flow out. The fact that people actually read them is pretty freakin’ awesome. So hopefully this provides something useful to someone. And if not, at least it gives you a little more insight into what makes The Wood Whisperer tick. Perhaps in the future, I’ll talk a little bit about the monetization methods I find fruitful and why.

13 thoughts on “How Not to Make Money on the Internet

  1. Nothing is more annoying to me (at least on this general topic) that an RSS feed with just a small excerpt, that essentially stops mid-sentence and makes you click through… I’ve dropped several feeds due to this practice…

    That said, you can’t really fault folks for trying to drive traffic to their sites. I recently read an impassioned post by a cartoonist who apologized profusely because he felt that he had no choice but to revert to the “excerpt” model for his RSS feeds, to keep the wolf away from the door. I felt his pain, and along with a few other exceptions, I’m happy to support his site in the most minimal of ways possible, by simply clicking through…

  2. Great post Marc. I could not agree more but I come from a different perspective of someone who has a full time job in addition to my full time online venture. Working in marketing by day, I like to think I’m up to date on the latest monetization options on the interwebs but 9 times out of 10 they make me uncomfortable. I’m all about content marketing and letting what I say be my biggest draw for traffic. No matter what I do however, at the end of the day, my day job is keeping us in house and food. Making a move to the lumber industry was a big adjustment as it just doesn’t pay as well as marketing for Fortune 500 companies so I have found the Hand Tool School playing a bigger part in living expenses. However, even with this greater dependence I am loathe to start plugging more ads or tricks into my blog and definitely not on The Hand Tool School.
    I got a call the other day from an ad firm. Whether out of twisted pleasure or honest curiosity I indulged to see what this guy had in mind to “make my blog more profitable” Everything he said was spot on and probably would have made me more money (minus his firm’s fees) but it just felt disingenuine. If I get what you are saying about not making “more” money I applaud you and am in the same boat. I’m happy requiring another job to make my living (heck I’m surrounded by lumber!) and I would rather keep my HTS membership numbers lower and my passive affiliate and adsense revenue lower if it means that people are drawn to my site because of a sincere tone and quality content. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as always.

  3. Hey Marc,

    I think the option for a mid-roll video ad wouldn’t be too “icky” for online videos…so long as you could control it’s placement, give a little comment that it’s coming, and ideally, disallow any advertisers you do not want to be affiliated with. Sadly, I doubt these options are available…hell, that might even be a possible venture to outdo other video platforms.

    hmm….

  4. Marc
    I agree entirely with what you have said in this post. It is one of the great lessons for the marketing of services (as opposed to durable and perishable goods) that the goal is to establish a personal relationship between the provider and the consumer. Quite what that relationship is up to the persons concerned, but most of us prefer to be liked and respected and want a relationship to be mutual. That means that suppliers of services have to show affection and respect for customers – it also explains why a provider is always entitled to refuse to supply his service to the disrespectful customer. I suppose you could try to build a business of supplying services on some other personal relationship (dependence, let them hate me so long as they fear me, …etc), but affection and respect is probably the most usual and effective.

    That approach is an explanation for most of your and Shannon’s approach, but there is also the most important marketing strategy for services – the quality of the service provided and the experience of the customer in using those services. Your best marketing is your last job is the catch cry that I use when training young lawyers. That’s where follow up comes in – it’s part of making the experience of the customer fulfilling and to make sure that your service has been completed to the customer’s expectation.

    Cheers

    Jeremy

  5. Marc & Shannon, I just want to thank you guys for having integrity & ethics and not just money-grubbing. If I ever win the lottery &/or have the means to do so, you guys (& Matt too, seeing as the WTOR crew are my prime sources of all things wood) are in line for a nice, no-strings-attached bonus. Now let’s just hope those Powerball numbers come in! LOL

  6. Great post and thanks for the honesty and integrity. I will tell you that I noticed many of the things you stated about your site very early on and it was one of the reasons I really enjoyed it (not always hounding me to spend more, flooding me with ads, etc). I’ll even admit that I joined the Guild, full well knowing that I probably wasn’t going to be able to do much if any of the projects, at least initially. I think I did it more just to support the site and your hard work. I haven’t been able to do a project yet, but I enjoy watching the videos and seeing things evolve. Someday soon I will take on some of the projects, but between 2 kids, a wife working more than a full time job, me working more than a full time job and me also training for (another) Ironman (10-20 hours a week of training), I’m being patient.
    Keep up the good work!

  7. I’ll be renewing my membership to the guild regularly (well, when it’s coming due!;-) ) because of 2 shining examples of Marc’s philosophy:

    (First, setting aside the obvious ones – Woodworkers Fighting Cancer, charity rocking horses, 911 email responses on the double, etc.)

    1) Honest, fun, useful content. What he knows, he shares and demonstrates very well. What he doesn’t know, he’s willing to ask for input and lets the forums contribute, then gives credit where credit is due. You’re not supposed to be the smartest person in the room, you’re supposed to be the most resourceful. He’s got that.

    2) To non-members, his membership sometimes seems high. But besides having a world of info (Marc, guild members, etc.) at your fingertips, he’s just as ready to help those of us that because of work, etc., don’t get shop time or involvement in the community daily as much as we’d like. So our occasional questions get just as much attention as those who interact with Marc or the forums every day.

    I’m personally working on a procedure to clone Marc so that when he reaches 1 MILLION! members there’s enough to go around! 😉

  8. Hey Marc,

    Not only do I love seeing vids from you, but I also love reading such posts. Both informative and sincere, that’s how the world will become a better place in the long run. And that’s exactly how I deal with my customers where I work. Money will never buy respect, but respect sells!

  9. Pingback: Video Advertising | The Wood Whisperer

  10. I was starting to believe in what this guy, Marc, was saying. Then I checked out one of his videos, and guess what….. a 15 second ad for Olive Garden or something played before the video….. BAM – So much for believing in what he says…. Guess someone found “his price”…. Sure maybe he’ll eloquently justify it, or maybe just ignore it, but either way, he did something he said he wouldn’t do to his “friends”

    • Hey Steve. Your dismissive and assuming tone makes it difficult to give you a thoughtful response but I’ll do my best. The world of online advertising is one that changes rapidly and I am not immune to the changing landscape. Since this article was written, we have moved off of Blip.TV and onto YouTube. Thankfully, YouTube allows us to implement ads that can be clicked away after about 4 seconds. This is pretty standard nowadays and I don’t feel too bad about having these ads in place. And this still supports my original statement that I want to respect the viewers experience. This is why I deliberately turn OFF the ads that force you to sit there for 30 seconds. If you happened to have found one of the old videos that shows a longer ad, please let me know which one so I can convert it to the new style. Implementing the longer ads would certainly make us more money, but I choose not to do that for the sake of the viewer experience.

      I don’t know if that “eloquently justifies” it to you, but that really isn’t my goal. I’m just trying to be honest and transparent and you can make of it what you will.

      If you have any other questions or concerns about our ad policies and how they relate to the user experience, please feel free to ask.

  11. Hey Marc,

    OK, you pass the test…. Not that I’m anyone to question the actions of another. I apologize for that, really I do… I myself am looking to find a profitable online structure without a lot of the aggravating BS that seems to be everywhere these days, not just online, and it’s difficult. I’m in the process of setting up a venture, called “The Green Coyote” where I combine recycled items (GREEN), with clever and adaptive marketing/ sales tactics (COYOTE). I combine many materials, typically wood and iron, and build wooden displays and cases- I still have a lot to learn, but so far everyone loves my cupcakes ;-)~
    I found myself watching more of your videos because they do in fact have a quality to them that is different than the others. Professional with an easy going feel to them, very nice balance. Maybe in the future I can pick your brain about a specific topic..?
    I’m sure I’ll have questions…..
    Thanks for the reply,
    Steve M

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