I decided to formulate the title as a question because I don’t know the answer yet. It depends on many factors like the implementation of a service and its adoption by users. So this post is more like a train of thoughts. I start out from looking into all kinds of options that come to my mind as alternatives.
I offer free software and write blogs, two of which have evolved to be well-accepted by readers (Weird Things in Prague and Unterwegs in Tschechien). From the beginning I tried various forms of monetization in order to cover the expenses (server, equipment, travel, communication, coffee, …) and help me allocate more time for research and writing from my day job.
Probably the easiest way is to put some advertising banners on your blog. The first provider that comes to mind is Google AdSense. Options range from static or dynamic banners in various shapes and sizes, including responsive sizes that automatically adjust to the screen, to overlays, automatically inserted ads that look like post summaries or like recommendations what to read next.
The problem with ads is that the cost-benefit ratio looks rather discouraging. You basically allow the ads to entirely change the appearance of your blog. Your original content cannot compete against the attention-grabbing and usually animated banners.
Many readers counter the flood of unwanted information by blocking these ads, which is not a real solution. I cannot go into a supermarket with a device that blocks cashiers because I find them so annoying. Many visitors rightfully criticize ads for collecting data about their browsing history, but in many cases the core reason is that sense of entitlement, claiming that intellectual products – other than things that you can touch or even eat – must be provided for free.
I don’t see any chances that a paywall could solve the problem. Many readers of my Czech travel blog, for example, are one-time visitors. They come with a particular question, like “How do I use the metro in Prague?”. My blog seems to be best equipped to answer that question. But it cannot persuade the visitors to read also about tours off the beaten path into a nearby nature reserve. And they certainly will not sign up for my newsletter or buy a subscription since they’re only in Prague for one weekend and then they continue to Vienna or Berlin.
And, no, I don’t want to change my blog and start writing only lists of “10 must-see places” and “How to …” articles. I started that blog to write for a particular audience of returning visitors, but since already a huge amount of one-off visitors comes and takes the information, it seems only fair to find a way how to monetize it.
There are interesting paywall variations like Laterpay where readers get a head start reading content and only after they reached a threshold they have to pay to continue reading. I like the idea, but I’m afraid that none of the casual visitors will reach that threshold on my blogs.
Crowdfunding and Spin-Off Products
Also services like Patreon won’t work on my blogs. The same argument that I mentioned for the paywalls applies also here: Most visitors come because they need a concise answer to a very specific question. They certainly won’t fund anything that would be ready after one month, provided that I can secure the funding.
There are also no e-books in the pipeline (that I could sell or seek crowd-funding for) because that would require a huge amount of extra work with an uncertain chance to break even. All I need is some money for the work I am doing anyway.
Affiliate links can really make sense if you link to products that are related to your content. On my travel blog I use, for example, Booking.com (note that extra parameter in the link). These links are unobtrusive and your readers don’t pay more than what they would without the link.
Earnings usually increase when you expressively recommend a product (or a hotel, or a destination). On the other hand, articles can also look a bit spammy if you exaggerate with affiliate links. And readers will also doubt the impartiality of your judgement if you earn money from the sales of things that you recommend.
There is always the risk that you increasingly choose your topics according to the offers of your affiliate partners. It is difficult to keep the golden medium and not to compromise the reasons why you initially started your blog.
I could summarize the situation as follows:
- The posts of my blogs are too small to sell them to customers. Even if I would set a very low value, no buyer would want to go through a purchase procedure.
- Only few readers are returning visitors. There is no chance to retain the casual customers because they only need one piece of information from what I offer.
- Most of my posts are not actually indispensable. I believe they are fun to read and I get only positive feedback. But if I would start requesting money, readers would simply switch to similar websites where content is free.
- Paywalls make it difficult or impossible for search engines to index the content. My blogs, however, receive the far biggest share of visitors from search engines.
- Advertising banners threaten to deface a website without offering an adequate income in return.
- Affiliate links pose a risk to favor topics and views that drive visitors towards purchases.
An interesting alternative are donations, particularly micro-donations. In my experience, people hit the PayPal button only after your product has solved a real problem. As soon as that feeling of relief starts fading away, your contribution to their happiness is a thing of the past.
Particularly, PayPal works for me only with free software. Even regular readers of my blogs don’t keep a tally about tiny amounts of happiness that one fine day add up to a donation. This is even more the case for the above-mentioned one-off visitors.
A few years back I came across Flattr. I won’t summarize here how it works, you can find the details on their website. They started as a very promising enterprise with that typical look-and-feel of a community project. There were lots of early adopters around, podcasters reported a monthly income of up to 1,000 euros. Flattr was fast to accommodate new feature requests, such as recurring donations, offline-donations (via QR code) and payments by bitcoin.
Somehow the project must have hit a soft ceiling and didn’t manage to gain a foothold with the huge content providers. I’m honestly impressed that instead of just folding their business, they revamped their product. The main objective was to make the service more user-friendly for the masses.
Rather than distributing your micro-donations by clicking on Flattr buttons, your donations are now calculated automatically by a browser extension: The more attention you give to a website, video or podcast, the higher is the share for the creator. As before, the monthly total is still set by the contributor. The extension only calculates how you share it. If you are not happy with what the extension suggests, you can also manually adjust your shares.
The main advantage is of course that you don’t need buttons anymore. The basic principle is not the like-button that sends over some money, but rewarding creators by using their content on the web.
Further changes are:
- Flattr switched from euros to dollars and discarded bitcoins.
- You need a credit card to charge your contributor’s account.
- Flattr generally present itself more like a professional company than a community-driven project.
These changes and some fears about privacy issues (which Flattr says are not justified) snubbed some of the previous users who often left theatrically with a public outcry of “enough is enough”, which I found mostly surprising given that Flattr is not a tax-funded service with a public duty, but an enterprise that needs to generate some income and that has to bear the business risk.
Can the New Flattr do the Job?
I think that Flattr went the right way. The service has to meet the needs and habits of ordinary Internet users who feel intimidated by cryptocurrencies and don’t want to participate in any community-driven project.
For my blogs Flattrs would be the ideal source of income. Even one-off visitors would pay a small amount. There is no extra purchase procedure, not even clicking a button. And readers still have the full control, since they can disable donations for my domain if they decide that my content is not worth a donation.
The only open question is if Flattr will gain enough momentum – particularly since it will be difficult to convince website owners who have tried before to give it a second chance. I think that Flattr should address that problem, maybe in the FAQs.
Flattr will also have to invest much more in promotion. Word of mouth will certainly not do to reach the masses. Neither can they rely on publishers to do the heavy lifting because they will only join if the user base is big enough to create some income.
For the time being, I have registered my websites as creator. It’s free and the worst thing that can happen is that I don’t earn anything. I will also keep watching their blog for new posts, hoping that they will come up with some promotion activities that go beyond early adopters and podcasters.
Photo by ThePixelman