10 ways to make money from online communities

by Martin Reed on 26 September 2008 in Articles

Make money from online communities

Many people complain that online communities can’t make money – they are wrong, though. In this article I will briefly cover ten ways you can make money from your online community.

1. Interstitials & Popups

Let’s get these out of the way first. Avoid them – simple as that.


  • Hate your site’s visitors? Drive them away AND make money!


  • You annoy your visitors
  • You drive visitors away from your website
  • They distract from your content
  • Many companies and networks will refuse to work with sites that contain popups or interstitials
  • Nobody likes them, everyone hates them, use them only if you want to show your visitors just how little respect you have for them

2. Banner Advertising

The old staple of online advertising comes in the form of banners. You can run banners on your site on a cost per click (CPC) basis, a cost per thousand impressions (CPM) basis, or a cost per action (CPA) basis. From a forum owner’s point of view, very often CPM deals are the most profitable as forums generate a proportionately large number of pageviews per visitor. However, most big advertisers shy away from advertising on forums and this is one reason why.

You will likely sell banner advertising privately through your site. Alternatively you may find an advertising network that wants to run targeted banners on your community. Just ensure that you change graphical banners regularly to avoid ad burnout.


  • Easy to implement
  • Wide range of sizes
  • Freedom to position banners anywhere on your site


  • Some visitors may be ‘ad blind’
  • Need to ensure banners are regularly updated and replaced
  • Ads may be blocked by certain browsers

3. Affiliate Programs

If you have a highly targeted niche audience, you are almost certainly losing out on revenue if you are not advertising affiliate programs. Simply sign up directly with a merchant, or through an intermediary such as TradeDoubler and you will earn money for each visitor, lead or sale you send to the site you are partnering with.

My oldest site, Just Chat has an affiliate relationship with EasyDate which brings in a good amount of consistent monthly revenue.


  • Huge number of different affiliate programs to choose from
  • Easy to find potential affiliate partners
  • Potential to negotiate better rates if you send quality traffic


  • If you send poorly converting traffic, you may earn nothing
  • Potential for merchant to reject or decline portions of your earnings
  • Merchant may end the relationship at any time

4. Text Links

Selling text links in your online community can be profitable – especially if you have a highly targeted audience. Some sites will also want to advertise on highly-trafficked sites or those that are popular with the search engines in an attempt to boost their own rankings.

If you decide to sell text links on your site, you need to consider whether to disclose the fact that the links are paid placements. You also need to be aware that Google may punish you by lowering your site in the search engine results if you sell text links without adding the ‘nofollow’ tag.

If you don’t want to sell text links privately, you may like to take a look at sites such as Text Link Ads.


  • Paid revenue for text placement rather than ad performance
  • Once you add the text link you can forget about it until the end of the advertising period
  • Can be relatively unintrusive yet profitable


  • Ethical questions are raised – should you publicise the fact the links are paid placements?
  • Possible ‘punishment’ from Google

5. Contextual Advertising

Perhaps the easiest of all the options to implement, Google AdSense is seen on almost every online community. I used to run AdSense on the Just Chat message boards but soon removed it as it was only making a couple of pounds each day. Depending on your niche and the placement of your ads, you can make good money with AdSense, though – I still use it on the chat room pages at Just Chat as most of the ads served there are for dating sites which offer a pretty good amount of revenue per click.

If advertisers are keen to gain exposure amongst your community’s audience, you stand to make good revenue. Just make sure you always experiment with the placement of your AdSense blocks, as well as their appearance.

Another form of contextual advertising is offered by companies such as Kontera – when you add their code to your pages, certain words will link to advertiser websites and you earn money for each click. This kind of advertising can distract from your content though, and if used in forums you may upset members who see you directly profiting from ‘their’ content.


  • Easy to implement
  • Easy to apply for
  • Automatic ad serving means you don’t have to worry about changing banners or ad code


  • Contextual advertising doesn’t always work
  • Some niches and keywords earn pitiful amounts
  • In-text advertising can be distracting from content

6. Sponsored Posts

This is so straightforward I am surprised more forums are not doing it. Upon paying a fee to you, advertisers can write a sponsored post in your forum. For example, let’s say you have a forum dedicated to pets. A dog food company may be looking to advertise on your site – upon payment of a fee, you allow them to make a post in your ‘Dog Care’ forum, advertising their product or service.

Alternatively, you could get them to email you the ad copy and you can post it in the forum yourself. Make the post ‘Sticky’ so that it stays at the top of the forum for the designated advertising period.


  • No messing around with your website’s code
  • Fast and easy setup
  • Location within forum will result in good exposure for the advertiser


  • Members may resent advertiser intrusion into forums
  • Members may not be aware of what posts are ‘genuine’ and which are ads

7. Email Marketing

All websites should be building an email list of their visitors. An opt-in subscriber list is a valuable marketing tool. You can use your email list to build relationships with your visitors, and also to market to them. Make sure you only send advertising messages to those that have given you explicit permission to do so. Many companies will be interested in using your subscriber database to send promotional emails – mainly through affiliate networks, but also through private channels.


  • Quick and easy – send the email and the campaign is over
  • Very little effort required once you have a sizeable subscriber base


  • You need explicit permission from every person you wish to email
  • You need a sizeable subscriber list to interest advertisers
  • Excessive emails may result in people unsubscribing from your list

8. Paid Memberships

If your community offers fantastic content and highly passionate members, you could introduce paid memberships. Members that pay a weekly/monthly/annual fee can access restricted areas of your community, or enjoy additional features.

I have never made sections of my online communities exclusively for paid members, but that is not to say I won’t in the future. I do allow people to register their choice of chat name for an annual fee, though.


  • Subscriptions should create predictable, regular income
  • Create members who are even more loyal (if they pay, they’ll want to stay)


  • Your content or additional features must be worth at least the price you are asking
  • If you let down a paying member of your community, your reputation will suffer
  • You need to ensure free members still feel valued

9. Co-Registration

Type ‘co-registration’ into Google and see how many results are returned. If people need to register to use your site, then you can potentially make money from every single member through co-registration. Basically, you share information contained within your registration form (and sometimes add additional fields) with advertisers who will pay you for the information.

Just make sure that registrants know what information you are sharing, and make it optional – you do not want to put off genuine members for the sake of a few dollars.


  • Once the co-reg form is up, no further effort required
  • Passive way of generating income
  • The more members register, the more you earn


  • You may loose potential new members
  • If advertisers misuse the information you share, your reputation will suffer

10. Sell your own products

Online communities are a fantastic way for brands to build relationships with their customers. If you have a product or service to sell, you can develop an online community in order to learn more about your customers and build customer loyalty.


  • You are retaining your site traffic
  • You are not promoting potential competitors
  • You build relationships with your customers


  • If you sell bad products or services, your online community will suffer
  • Your online community should complement your products or services
  • More effort may be needed to maintain a community based around a single product or service


There are a number of ways you can make money with an online community – I have only covered ten methods in this article. I am sure I have missed some, and I know there is a lot of additional detail I have excluded (this article is already over 1,500 words in length!). I merely wanted to show that there are more ways of making money with your online community than just slapping up some Google AdSense code.

Your thoughts

How does your online community make money? Do you use any of the methods I have mentioned? What have I missed out? Feel free to name the companies you work with (but please no affiliate links).

Share this community building advice


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Mr Woc September 26, 2008 at 9:04 pm

Hi there

Really good article, some stuff i didnt know on there too, I agree with pop ups and pop unders too, total no no and drive people mad, so defo to be avoided.

It was a good idea to outline the benefits and disadvantages clearly too !


Amish September 27, 2008 at 11:49 am

As you know, I have not launched any community site yet. As a user however, I agree with your analysis of what will work and what will not. Good sound advise.

Angela Connor September 28, 2008 at 4:11 am

With an online community that is still essentially connected to a traditional media website I’m not sure ho we would handle several of your suggestions though they are very good ones. What do you do in the event the community balks at your method(s) of choice if they are not used to any form of advertising intermingled with content?

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 28, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Mr Woc – Unfortunately it is easy to be seduced by pop-ups and pop-unders as they can generate some good revenue. Resist, though!!

Amish – I can’t wait to see what kind of online community you come up with; I know you have been mulling it over for quite some time now!

Angela – Not all of my suggestions will work for everyone; indeed I don’t exploit all the opportunities I have listed as not all of them are right for me.

I think it is quite rare for a community to revolt just because you have added advertising – most people understand and accept that in order to be able to consume and access the free content you are providing, you need to be able to earn something back. Always listen to what the community has to say, though – if they are complaining that the advertising method you have chosen distracts them from your content then you need to seriously think about employing a different method.

Remember, keeping your members happy is the key to a successful online community. Communicate with your members – explain why you need to show advertising, and ask for their patience. They may complain at first simply because they aren’t used to seeing ads. After a few days, they may learn to live with them. Just make sure you take your members’ opinions seriously, and respect what they have to say.

Why not even try to get your members involved in your advertising strategy? Ask them what type of ads they would be happy seeing on the site. You could even ask them what kind of products/services/companies they would like to see being advertised. Get your members involved and respect their opinions and you will reduce the chance of any community revolt.

Nicole Price September 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

That is a good list you have put together there; thanks. As for pop ups, do sites actually have those anymore? They are so singularly reviled and mostly superfluous because most browsers block them, so thought that most would not bother with them.

Richard Millington September 28, 2008 at 10:14 pm

Good post. I do think there are a few things missing – especially for communities that aren’t created for corporate purposes. I wrote a similar post to this a fortnight ago: http://www.feverbee.com/2008/09/10-ideas-to-make-money-from-your-community.html.

Once you’ve built a community, it’s very easy to make money if you do it properly.

Angela Connor September 29, 2008 at 3:30 am

I love the idea of getting my members involved with the overall strategy. Thanks for the lengthy response. iI is greatly appreciated. I’ll keep you posed.

jennifer September 29, 2008 at 5:22 am

I read #1 and about spit my gum out. Then I read and saw that you were joking. I wondered if you’d been taken over by a pod person for a moment!

kouji October 1, 2008 at 7:41 am

i’m a big fan of the first point you raised. i really can’t stand pop ups. sometimes i try to tolerate them, but that’s quite rare.

Nicole Price October 2, 2008 at 4:04 am

It seems to be fairly unanimous: everyone hates popups. And mostly they are unconnected with the page you are trying to read, so they are all the more irritating.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 6, 2008 at 7:04 pm

Nicole – You’d be surprised; I still come across sites with popups and let me tell you, I don’t visit them more than once. It’s a shame as some of them have some great content; I wonder if these developers realise that for the few cents they just banked, they just lost a potentially long term visitor and member.

Richard – Thanks for your comment, and the link to your article. I think some of your points may be a little out of the reach of smaller community developers, but you definitely make a good overall point that not all your revenue needs to come from online advertising.

Angela – You’re welcome. Give it a try and let me know how you get on.

Jennifer – Ha! I figured I had to get that one out of the way early on. I think as soon as you declare your hatred for popups you immediately gain credibility!

Kouji – Popups are intolerable and should never be used. Simple as that!

Nicole – Exactly; it’s impossible to create a community if you are annoying your members. People won’t stick around if you hijack their browsers.

Schmitt October 7, 2008 at 11:09 pm

Pop ups are one thing, yesterday while visiting a competitor’s website an ENORMOUS starburst came into focus covering the entire website. I mean come on, adding advertising in a tasteful way that doesn’t intrude should be fine with your online community. It’s the annoying blasts and intrusive adverts that will have them revolting.


Jenny October 8, 2008 at 11:55 pm

I wouldnt mind monetizing my site, but I think that the only way I could go with it would be through affiliate sales. But first, I should probably build up my readership :D

Eva White October 10, 2008 at 5:41 am

I hate pop ups.
banners are okay but make less than affiliates.
test links and contextual ads i have not tried.
sponsored posts lack credibility.
email marketing is as bad as pop ups.
paid memberships have a high conversion rate.
co-registration is a good idea and selling your own products can require a lot of effort.

Great post. Some one looking to monetize their site can find all the options needed here.

Eva White October 10, 2008 at 5:44 am

No new posts in all of October??

Irina October 14, 2008 at 7:38 am

One more very important thing is design convenience. It helps in all cases written above.

Karen Davis October 15, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Your 10 ways to make money is a very helpful thing. All things have benefits and disadvantages, so one must be aware of those.

John Collins October 16, 2008 at 9:51 pm

what about adsense? Its another option!

Smiley October 17, 2008 at 5:28 am

Only problem with Adsense is it goes a bit dodgy at times. You can’t really target it properly. If you’re running an adult community, for example, you don’t want “Teen Chat” popping up on your ads.

Similarly, if you’re running a teen community you don’t want “Adult Chat Rooms”, or “Web Cam Sex Chat” popping up, etc.

Frank October 19, 2008 at 7:17 pm

If you have just launched the online community site,then you should concentrate on building traffic for first 5 months then try to earn money from that.

Selling space in online community site initially can distract the user from your site.User may think your site is only for commercial purposes

Smiley October 20, 2008 at 7:32 am

Yes, Frank! Exactly.

Martin wrote on article about this before. As a new community owner your #1 priority should be visitor retention.

Having ads up on a new community pretty much means they’ll click on that and bugger off.

Randy Brown October 21, 2008 at 4:47 am

we monetize our community “the old fashioned way” – PPC (Adsense & Kontera), a sprinkling of Affiliate sales, and Premium/Paid memberships. In the 2.5 years since we started the community it is generated over $200,000 – the majority for the first year coming from Adsense, the majority for the last year from Paid/Premium memberships. Paid memberships are tough to maintain though, and obviously you really have to have something worth a member’s hard-earned $$. But if you can swing it, it’s obviously worth the effort..

PS – if you ever find a pop-up or interstitial ad on my site, please drive to my house and shoot me..

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 23, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Schmitt – I agree with you. I have been coming across increasingly distracting advertising of late that is hugely distracting. It needs to be purged.

Jenny – Yup, having traffic will definitely increasing your revenue! Focus on creating good content and do some active marketing and it’ll come.

Eva – There is nothing wrong with email marketing, and it is definitely not as bad as pop-ups AS LONG AS YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO USE THE EMAIL ADDRESSES. Please don’t mistake email marketing with spam – they are two completely different things!

PS – There have been a few posts in October! ;)

Irina – Can you elaborate on what you mean by the term ‘design convenience’? Are you suggesting that you should use whatever ads fit best in your design? Well, that is definitely something that should be considered.

Karen – Thanks for your comment, I am glad you enjoyed the article.

John – I covered AdSense in #5: Contextual Advertising.

Smiley – I agree. I have had to remove AdSense from one page of Just Chat as it was showing completely unrelated ads; as a result the click through rate moved to virtually 0%. Odd seeing as other pages that are almost identical run correctly targeted ads. I wish AdSense gave us some control over subject targeting.

Frank – I agree with you. In the early days, your sole purpose and objective is to build the community. You won’t make any money with advertising if you have no visitors or members!

Randy – I have never been fully comfortable with Kontera, particularly within a forum environment. I am not convinced that ‘editing’ a member’s posts for your site’s own financial advantage would go down well with members and make them feel valued and welcomed as individuals rather than money-making machines.

You have made some good revenue from your site, and I appreciate your contribution warning readers that paid and premium memberships are harder to maintain than people may think!

Dan October 23, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Good article, I like the way you listed the pro’s and con’s of each income stream. I’m not a big fan of adsense it seems like the amount of each click keeps getting smaller and smaller

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 27, 2008 at 9:32 pm

Dan – Thanks for your comment; AdSense can be a great earner but it can definitely be unpredictable.

Smiley October 30, 2008 at 5:05 am

So do I, Martin. I’ll tell you what, though, I’m glad you reminded me about Easy Date. The client allows me to rotate ads of any size, and choose where on the client to place them. I can place them at the top, or the side.

I chose the top, leader head size. It rotates different ads every few minutes or so. They are a nice little earner, they tend to cover the site costs.

Kurt November 10, 2008 at 7:52 am

Good info. As previously mentioned, Adsense can definitely be unpredictable. I’ve always wondered how much traffic it takes to keep up a good stream of income.

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 17, 2008 at 8:27 pm

Smiley – No worries at all. Have you tried out their White Label offering yet? I have been experimenting with different dating affiliate programs; give me a shout if you want some new ideas.

Cat – You are welcome; glad I could be of assistance!

Kurt – Traffic doesn’t always come into the equation; depending on the subject matter of your site and how well targeted your traffic is, you could make a very good income from just a hundred visitors per day!

Smiley November 22, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Wouldn’t mind some new ideas. I’ve e-mailed EasyDate and asked them to change my program, I’m not really getting decent conversion rates with their ‘private’ program. People click on the banners plenty enough but don’t buy any subscriptions.

I’ve asked to go back to pay per lead/signup

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 29, 2008 at 1:24 am

Smiley – I’ll drop you an email when I get a spare moment with some ideas for you.

Shaw February 21, 2009 at 4:05 am

Every action in your community, is an opportunity to promote, add life and currency to your community. Show recent activity everywhere, especially on your home page. Promote community members who are active, give them incentives to stay active, and help them see the results of their community involvement.

Tom February 21, 2009 at 7:39 pm

Been experimenting with ads, re-implemented Google Adsense. Google brings in around 200 a month, I’m currently awaiting a 200 payment from Easydate (but that’s from over three months).

I’ve revamped the site, it needs tweaking here and there and needs things adding, but I’ve fully integrated the site using the forum’s CSS header & footer, as you originally suggested I did. I finally learnt how to do it and gotten round to doing it. It’s given me a better opportunity to play with ads. But the thing I notice with Google Adsense is, if you find that ‘gold’ position, your user numbers drop.

Last night I only had 36 users in chatting. On a Friday night I have twice as much as that. But saying that, I did also notice less complaints about perverts and sex talk. Coincidence?? ;)

Seems the pervo’s click on the links and bugger off, and the genuine chatters login when you find that ‘gold’ position.

It makes me 20 per day, 20 per day that I previously wasn’t receiving. Doesn’t sound much – but heck, it adds up at the end of the month !!

Matty June 29, 2009 at 11:43 am

Really nice page.

A lot of time and effort has obviously gone into this. I’ve tried quite a lot of advertising techniques but there are a few in that list that I need to give a go.

Thanks for the share,


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