How can I make money from a high-traffic website?
July 7, 2004 3:17 AM   Subscribe

I run a fairly popular website that recently has started getting in excess of half a million pageviews (~1.7 million hits) a day. The usership mainly consists of teenagers and college students, who come back day after day but don't have a lot of money at their disposal - yet it seems to me that I should be able to turn this sort of traffic into something profitable. Yet I have no idea how, without charging money for things; Adsense yields very little for my keywords, and banner ads are giving me around $11 a day. Does anyone have any experience with this? I'd love to eventually quit my day job and do this full time.

Self-link for the interested: As you can see, it isn't exactly mainstream stuff.
posted by bwerdmuller to Computers & Internet (19 answers total)
I think you've just discovered the problem that killed so many dot.coms. And there isn't really an answer. Sorry.
posted by twine42 at 5:35 AM on July 7, 2004

Well, even if membership fees and advertising aren't going to work for you, you've at least got two other options that might be viable for you (I wouldn't be as negative as twine42, but it certainly isn't easy):

1) Partnerships/Sponsorships: Typically, what you'd want to do is to find companies or institutions that really want to reach the audience you're attracting, through the specific lens you've got, and convince them that by "hard-wiring" themselves into the experience, they're going to do a much better job of talking to that audience.
That doesn't mean you have to soullessly sell out to the highest corporate bidder--for example, you might try and work with college humor magazines, or even colleges themselves, or college "special-interest" groups (like student political parties). Partnerships might also give you the chance to participate in larger advertising campaigns that those more established partners have generated.

2) Merchandising: This is maybe an even better option for you--t-shirts, mugs, posters, anything you can think of that college students buy in droves, that you can buy or produce at a good margin.
Therer are a number of options on this front, from just acting as a storefront for goods that are designed, produced and inventoried somewhere else, through finding a manufacturer for your own "Rum And Monkey" goods, and arranging for the inventory and sale. (That's not as hard as it seems--there was another thread on just this topic a couple of days ago.)

Probably the best thing to do is to look at similar sites that have gotten off the ground, like ModernHumorist. They've put together the same combination that I've just recommended. As a caveat, though, I don't think even the folks at MH really make a living off the site--they've parlayed the exposure into TV/movie development deals, and that's where their financial support comes from. (They're also from the Harvard Lampoon, which gives them an automatic step up in that world.) I'm not even sure that the site's self-supporting, economically (although it might be).

Honestly, while I think there are ways for you to try and wring more money out of the site itself, I really wouldn't get overexcited about the possibility of making a living out of it. I don't think even either of the ideas I've suggested are likely to bring in amounts of money that are going to change your life. Good luck, though.
posted by LairBob at 6:00 AM on July 7, 2004

Merchandising is the way to go, especially for a website with repeat visitors. Hire a graphic designer to create a bunch of logos that would look good on t-shirts and play around with different conceptual ideas. FWIW, the guys at have quit their day jobs and now create Strong Bad cartoons full time. They have no banner ads. The online store pays all the bills.
posted by PrinceValium at 6:22 AM on July 7, 2004

If you run it yourself, then the only advice I can give is good luck, and don't quit your day job yet. Off the top of my head, I can think of maybe ten websites operated by one or two people that garners not only operating costs, but living wage for the authors. Half of them are webcomics. That's ten, out of every website on the internet. Think about that in percentage terms.

Even with professionals, most websites are extensions of the professional. Scott Kurtz and the Penny Arcade guys are writers and artists on the side. Most well-established bloggers are writers, or columnists, or web techs. Hell, Matt Haughey does writing and web work for income, to the best of my knowledge.

If you decide to start merchandising and advertising, or selling subscriptions, that's the most plausible chance of this site becomming your career. But it will not, I repeat WILL NOT, happen overnight. Goats is a funny site, and only after seven years have the guys doing it started to dip their toes into the self-financed model.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:23 AM on July 7, 2004

Well, here's an article called Blogging For Dollars written by someone named Matt Haughey.
posted by orange swan at 6:31 AM on July 7, 2004

Merchandising is the way to go, especially for a website with repeat visitors.

Definitely. Develop and push the brand. Use your marks in a consistent manner and develop good will with your visitors. This book is a nice overview of branding.
posted by anathema at 6:33 AM on July 7, 2004

How many unique viewers do you have per month?
posted by jeb at 6:41 AM on July 7, 2004

How many unique viewers do you have per month?

An excellent question.

"Hits" as a statistic means absolutely, positively nothing to anyone but an IT guy checking your bandwidth usage or web server scaling. If I make a web page with 12 extra images in it, it's going to get 12 times more hits for each page load.

"Page Views" means a little more, but it doesn't tell you if it's the same person reloading/revisiting a bunch.

"Unique Visitors" (per month, per day) is the real valuable statistic. A good stats package will let you look at their info in a number of different ways.

This is somewhat of a tangent, but if you're thinking about expanding advertising, or talking to sponsers, you should have a solid understanding of what web stats mean.
posted by malphigian at 7:42 AM on July 7, 2004

Response by poster: We run Webalizer twice hourly, and it tells me that we've had around 590,000 pageviews so far today (GMT) and 55,000 unique users.

Good points all. I find the Modern Humorist story the most interesting, but I think you're right in saying that their Lampoon connections may have helped a teensy bit. Nonetheless, it may be worth pursuing.
posted by bwerdmuller at 8:25 AM on July 7, 2004

Response by poster: Oh, and as an aside, it turned out that our banner ad company was giving us unpaid defaults (despite promising never to do this). Hence the very low royalties.
posted by bwerdmuller at 8:31 AM on July 7, 2004

Response by poster: (And finally, we've been getting between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors a month. This month I think it will end up being much higher.)
posted by bwerdmuller at 8:32 AM on July 7, 2004

Goats has just started a fundraising drive to get $20K. They reckon they have 100,000 regular readers, but don't say whether that's monthly or daily - for a webcoming, I'd guess it was more like daily.

Something Positive just raised $22K in a couple of weeks of fundraising - can't recall if Randy ever mentioned his number of visitors.

So with the level of uniques you list, I'd say you have a chance of making a good level of moolah out of it. But as others have said, go for the branding. Shirts, mugs, whatever. Do it sensibly - Cafe Press is probably not the best option (low quality, high fees) but there are others out there. Comics have a specific pull for people and are far more differentiated than journals... any idea why you've suddenly won the popularity stakes? Is that audience level doing to drop off or will it stay?
posted by humuhumu at 8:42 AM on July 7, 2004

Have you looked into GoogleAds and considered putting up a Paypal link on your site? It's not gonna be enough to quit your dayjob, but I'm sure it'll do better than just $11/day
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 9:10 AM on July 7, 2004

He said in his original post that he's using AdSense right now, and only pulling in about $11/day.
posted by waxpancake at 9:18 AM on July 7, 2004

You could also look at registering with an advertiser who pays CPM (cost per thousand impressions [ie, pageviews]). These days the payout is about $0.20/1000, but that's still $340/day.

Some CPM networks: fastclick,,, casale media.
posted by Marquis at 9:24 AM on July 7, 2004

Response by poster: To clarify: I'm using AdTegrity, a supposedly CPM network, which is giving me around $11 / day. AdSense is giving me much, much less, although I'm not using it on all pages.
posted by bwerdmuller at 9:35 AM on July 7, 2004

Well, when it comes down to it, one of the basic questions is to what degree are you looking at making a living off the website, and to what degree are you looking at making a living at what you're doing on the site (i.e., writing).

As a lot of people have agreed, a site like yours probably has limited potential to really underwrite all your financial needs. That's not to say it can't happen, but it's not really something to bet on. With your traffic, though, you've probably got a shot at having make a nice difference--not enough to pay a mortgage, maybe, but pay off some bills/loans, get a nice stereo, that type of thing.

On the other hand, if you're real goal is broader, then you also want to look at ways that the site can be a platform for shifting what you do as a career. A credible site, like yours, is probably a good calling-card for smaller writing gigs (like they talk about at all the time), and it might be a good entree with an agent who can help you find writing work.

It's also potentially a good platform for PR--I've got a friend who started his own financial stats site with a kind of contrarian take on things, and while the site hasn't made him a lot of money, it's given him an opportunity to get on the Rolodexes of a bunch of different reporters. When they need a counterpoint to some of the official spokespeople, they call him for a quote, and now all the news mentions might be helping get some writing gigs.

These broader options are all even less sure than the first options I suggested, so definitely don't quit your day job over them, but if you're goals are broader, you should think about broader aims for your site than just generating revenue. See if you can take advantage of a successful site to make some meaningful career moves.
posted by LairBob at 9:40 AM on July 7, 2004

As people above have said: merchandising, merchandising, merchandising. Teenagers are not poor. I've seen plenty of sites for people in the 14-20 range that survive on merchandising alone: if you've got a lot of teenagers there and can make cool stuff, they'll be sure to go for it.
posted by reklaw at 2:59 PM on July 7, 2004

Cool by, um, the standards of 14 to 20 year olds. :-)
posted by baylink at 9:28 AM on July 8, 2004

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