Content Monetization: How it Works and Mistakes to Avoid

content monetization

The opportunity for content monetization has never been greater. Individuals around the globe have built their content empires by publishing the unique details of their personal experiences for the world to see, and it’s all thanks to the internet. From foodies to entrepreneurs, fitness instructors to political figures, there’s droves of new content publishers across social media, video platforms, web hosted blogs, and email newsletters. Where there’s a dedicated audience, there’s a content creator ripe for monetization. And in today’s industry, these moguls are most commonly referred to as “influencers.”

Although there’s a definite cool factor associated with being an influencer, it’s important to debunk the myth that influencer is synonymous with the elite. Everyone and anyone is qualified to create content, publish it to their social media accounts, website, webinar, or email list, and monetize it by working with brands who value their message and target audience.

The term influencer is commonly associated with massive readerships and social media followings. But that’s a narrow point of view. In fact, brands are discovering more and more that large followings don’t necessarily equate to high quality, and the reverse is often true.

Small, dedicated audiences with a higher propensity for engagement, are more qualified to become potential customers than large, inactive followings. However a content creator chooses to define her or himself; whether it be as an influencer, an affiliate marketer, a brand advocate, or ambassador, their job is to inspire, inform, educate, and empower their unique audience.

"A content creator chooses to define her or himself; whether it be as an influencer, an affiliate marketer, a brand advocate, or ambassador, their job is to inspire, inform, educate, and empower their unique audience."

In this article, I’ll demonstrate the key ways in which creators monetize their content, and why one often overlooked model can outperform the other. I’ll also debunk the myth that influencer marketing is inherently different than other types of content creation/marketing, and highlight the importance of partnership in order to advance your earning potential.

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How is content monetized?

Content publishers — i.e. anyone who shares their content on the internet, including influencers — can monetize their messages by partnering with brands. Brands are hungry to understand ways in which they can work with content creators, but it’s not always a clear path to success for either party.

"Brands are hungry to understand ways in which they can work with content creators."

In fact, the term “influencer” eludes the majority. What do they actually do, and how can brands initiate a relationship with them? How are they compensated? Well, the answer to these questions varies significantly, and in fact, there are multiple layers of content creators.

The most common monetization model is sponsored posts, where the content publisher is compensated with a flat fee for posting on behalf of the brand. This model is most closely aligned with content creators who refer to themselves as influencers. The trouble with limiting oneself to sponsored posts is that, just like billboard ads or TV commercials, there’s no way to know how effective the ad will perform.

Unlike sponsored posts, performance models are built on a commissionable compensation framework, where the content publisher is paid a percentage of sales, or a bounty for desired actions — like email signups, subscriptions, or app downloads. This monetization model is most closely associated with affiliate marketing.

There’s a number of reasons the latter is preferable to brands. Primarily, it allows them to invest in a content publisher without risk of losing money. But there’s also a strong business case for content publishers to use a performance model. Performance-based compensation allows content publishers to advance their business in a number of ways. Here are the top benefits to performance models for publishers:

  1. Win more business. Being open to commissions will create more opportunity for new partnerships, by posing less risk to the advertiser.
  2. Long term earnings. Long term earnings can outpace the earning potential of a one time fee.
  3. Return customers. Brands will continue to invest in profitable partnerships, allowing publishers to develop long term partnerships.
  4. Tracking. Working on commissionable earnings means there will be a tracking link involved in the post, which helps both the advertiser and the publisher to monitor performance, and gain deep analysis of what works and what doesn’t.
  5. Optimization. Working on a performance basis allows the publisher and the advertiser to analyze the content performance, allowing both the ability to test new ways of appealing to the publisher's audience, and ultimately, improve both parties’ goals.

Content monetization can take many forms, but the two most common are through flat fees and commissions. With that in mind, both monetization models are a point of contention. Content monetization is a hot topic, especially as more publishers discover its benefits, and the market catches on.

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The great debate: Is monetized content authentic?

content monetization: debate

It’s always been a marketers mission to be where their target customers are. And with the age of the internet, the voice of the customer is heard, and their appetite for transparency is clear.

They want to discover a brand from people like them, or people they admire, and are interested in their opinion of the brand. This is in contrast with how brands used to market, where advertising was a matter of how they wanted to be perceived by the market.

Now, brands are flocking to individual content creators in the hope that they’ll provide potential customers with information about their brand, to help a creator’s audience make informed purchasing decisions. Content creators are becoming the most coveted marketing channel for advertisers to tap into.

So why has this powerful marketing solution become a subject of contention?

One of the greatest assets of brands working with content creators is the transparency consumers gain from receiving unbiased opinions, reviews, and information about the brand. But that practice is put into question when money is in the mix.

The topic of content monetization has become more pronounced with new regulations that require disclosure of partnership. For the sake of transparency, the practice of disclosure is critical. But that doesn’t mean the concept of monetization is unethical.

"Despite popular opinion, content monetization does not indicate inauthenticity. In fact, the best content creators are incredibly dedicated to delivering an authentic experience."

Despite popular opinion, content monetization does not indicate inauthenticity. In fact, the best content creators are incredibly dedicated to delivering an authentic experience. The myth that monetized content is disingenuous, fraudulent, untrue, or unethical, needs to be dispelled.

At PatreCon 2017, Jack Conte, the CEO of Patreon, shared his journey with content creation in the form of his music. He described his fear of being pegged as a sell-out when Hyundai approached his band to sponsor their music video. Yet, the partnership not only helped them earn some money that they could reinvest back into the band, but it also gave their music a bigger platform.

They leveraged the opportunity and in the long-run were able to deliver an even higher quality of music to their fans. And that decision was made in the interest of their audience.

Content publishers share the same dilemma. The two key priorities of successful content creators are:

  1. Serving the audience well. For long term success, content creators must deliver a value in the messages they share, which means they will only partner with brands that deliver value to their unique audience. They think about what their audience wants to know, what interests them, and what they can do to help solve a problem. Today’s content creator pros never risk promoting a brand that won’t appeal to their followers. Just like successful businesses, publishers need to deliver strong user experience, which means they must put the needs of their customers/readers first.
  2. Figuring out how best to monetize their content. Just as Jack did with his music, content creators need to assess what type of monetization works best for their long-term goals, and what feels authenticate to their business.

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The new age of content monetization

content monetization: new age

If you can recall the world before social media, you might remember flipping through the pages of a magazine, which often include traditional advertisements.

This advertising exists in two key ways. The first is in a traditional display format, like a full-page Rolex spread. The second is native advertising. You have to read between the lines to discover it, because it’s contextual, inconspicuous, and organic in nature. If you’ve ever read a “Who Wore it Better” article, you’d have seen suggestions from the editor on how you can achieve the look, nail the beauty regime, or find an outfit at a cheaper price.

That content represents an additional way for the magazine to monetize their publication. The advertiser allocates spend to the magazine in order to be included in their message to a relevant audience. This represents an integral revenue stream for the magazine, and when done well, it’s of high value to its reader. In fact, the majority of publications lean on their editorial team to decide on which brands to mention in their content.

Today, digital influencers have taken on the challenge of monetizing their content through native advertising, too, and make all the decision when selecting the brands, products, and experiences they wish to share with their audience.

"Back in the day, the only logical way to pay for advertising, whether a celebrity endorsement or a native advertisement published in a magazine, was to negotiate a flat fee. But that was before the world of digital tools, where marketing performance is easily measurable."

Back in the day, the only logical way to pay for advertising, whether a celebrity endorsement or a native advertisement published in a magazine, was to negotiate a flat fee. But that was before the world of digital tools, where marketing performance is easily measurable. With digital media, content publishers and advertisers alike can determine exactly how effective their media is, right down to the level of which customer came from what source, on which day, and at what time.

With data, an advertiser is empowered to make decisions that will make their marketing spend go further. They can identify the publisher that referred the most customers, the highest sales revenue, and the most loyal customers who returned to the brand again. They’re able to select the referral source, based on what will drive the highest return on their ad spend. That’s why publishers need to be armed with their own performance data, prepared to explore multiple monetization formats, and able to clearly describe their value to the advertiser.

"That’s why publishers need to be armed with their own performance data, prepared to explore multiple monetization formats, and able to clearly describe their value to the advertiser."

With digital media, publishers have more than one choice when it comes to monetizing their content, and advertisers have the capability to measure their value. There’s many ways to take advantage of that to advance the interests of the content creator, the advertiser, AND the customer.

The top three monetization mistakes influencers make

content monetization: influencers

To be an industry pro, you need to know how to set yourself apart. With more people monetizing their content, the competition for a brand's attention will continue to heat up. To win the hearts and media dollars of brands, here are three of the most common mistakes to avoid.

1. Media kits and vanity metrics

Many content creators, specifically those who refer to themselves as influencers, will have what’s called a media kit. But the majority of media kits seriously miss the mark.

A media kit is a snapshot of what the creator has to offer the brand. Media kits are supposed to help the advertiser understand the opportunity of partnering, but the majority don’t include the information advertisers really need to understand in order to invest in the partnership.

A typical media kit will include metrics that paint a picture of the publishers value. The problem is, these metrics focus on what digital marketers call vanity metrics.

Vanity metrics are things like average likes on a post, average engagement levels, number of followers, readers, or blog impressions, and page hits. Although that data can help a publisher understand their position in the industry, an advertiser only needs to know how well their media spend will perform based on qualitative and quantitative data.

When a content creator doesn’t clearly articulate qualifiers that the advertiser needs to know in order to estimate the measures of their investment, the publisher limits the potential of his or her business.

Advertisers want to see data like:

  • Average click through rate
  • Average conversion rate
  • Audience demographics
  • Behavioral data, such as audience interests and other brand affinities

It’s also important to understand an audience’s needs, pain points, challenges, and the solutions that would better their life; whether it’s their day-to-day, business, career, or their next vacation. Advertisers want to see information about the type of brands and businesses that an audience will respond best to. That level of analysis helps them understand an audience, their synergy with the brand, and whether there’s a strong alignment for partnership.

"Ultimately, the advertiser is looking for one key metric: Return On Ad Spend."

Ultimately, the advertiser is looking for one key metric: Return On Ad Spend. This is not something content creators can discern without an open line of communication with the advertiser they partner with. But it will help the publisher be competitive among those who don’t have this level of data.

Partnerships are built on a give and take framework, and it’s important that both parties are accountable to performance. With that in mind, sharing pre and post campaign insights will lead to better performance.

Having an understanding of what the advertiser can expect to gain from the exchange will move mountains in developing a lucrative long term partnership. There are other goals beyond sales that brands have, and content creators can deliver value in more ways than one. Publishers can tap into metrics that help articulate the value the brand will get from the partnership, like how many followers on average become a follower of the brand as a result of the promotion, how many times the branded content was shared, and how many people signed up for the brand’s newsletter.

Understanding how an audience interacts with the brand is critical to not only building long term partnerships, but in winning over the next client. Including this level of data in a media kit will change the game. Focus less on vanity metrics, and more on the benefits the brand can expect to gain.

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2. Defining yourself as an “influencer”

The second mistake content creators make is defining themselves as an “influencer,” “affiliate marketer,” or anything in-between. True, an “influencer” has a cooler sound to it than “content creator that has a large audience and monetizes content published on behalf of brands.” But an influencer carries a connotation that the publisher is only open to one particular monetization model, and that can be incredibly limiting to brands, deterring them from engaging in a partnership at all.

In contrast, an “affiliate marketer” has a stigma attached to the word that many just can’t shake. It doesn’t pack the same punch, and it implies the affiliate is less focused on content delivery and more focused on promotional methods, like paid media marketing.

Now, affiliate marketing as a marketing channel is highly sought after, lucrative, and impactful for a brand. But that wasn’t always the case, and unfortunately the title packs some negative connotation in the minds of those who don’t understand it’s full nature. For that reason, referring to yourself as an affiliate may indicate to advertisers that your content isn’t as valuable as that from an influencer.

The difference between influencer and affiliate

To set the record straight, an influencer more commonly charges a flat fee for their content, and is typically engaged by an advertiser for the goal of building brand awareness. This makes the type of content more “upper funnel” in nature, and less accountable to the business outcome.

Similar to celebrity endorsements, endorsements aren’t intended to lead to direct incremental sales, but it’s purpose instead is to build brand awareness and positive sentiment over the long run.

By contrast, an affiliate marketer typically monetizes their content through a performance model, which means they’re compensated on an agreed upon commission rate for the sales, leads, or downloads they refer to an advertiser. This tends to focus more on “lower funnel” marketing, where the publisher is encouraged to close the deal. The beauty of this model is that their unique tracking link helps advertisers determine their precise value, and over time, the relationship between the two parties can develop into a highly profitable one.

"Brands don’t care whether you’re an influencer, an affiliate marketer, a brand ambassador, or something in-between. The bottom line is, if you inform, educate, empower, or inspire an audience, you’re valuable to a brand."

Here’s the big secret: nobody cares which you are. How you define yourself is up to you. But what both of these models represent is simply a method of content monetization. Brands don’t care whether you’re an influencer, an affiliate marketer, a brand ambassador, or something in-between. The bottom line is, if you inform, educate, empower, or inspire an audience, you’re valuable to a brand, and they’re likely to invest in you if you arm yourself with the right data to show them what their return on ad spend will look like.

Which leads us to the biggest mistake of all.

3. Limiting yourself to a single content monetization model

Regardless of how you choose to define your profession, there are various different models in which brand partnerships can come to fruition. All an advertiser really wants to know is whether they will achieve their goals with their investment in a content creator. Will it deliver against their defined marketing goals? Will they receive new customers, increased sales, new subscriptions, or app downloads? And ultimately, whether in the short or long term, will sales outpace the cost of the creator’s content?

With a performance marketing model, advertisers only pay for the direct value they receive in return. With sponsored posts, advertisers pay for content creation without knowing what the return value will be. Furthermore, it’s much more difficult for a brand to monitor the value from sponsored posts because typically they don’t include links directing to the brands product page.

Brands are beginning to ask more of influencers. Although the industry remains in a phase where flat fees are common compensation practice, advertisers are increasingly turning to affiliate models where publishers are compensated only when the brands desired action is achieved. The accountability and low risk of a performance model can be a win-win for both parties.

So why are the majority of influencers shy to adopt a performance-based commission model?

  1. Sponsored posts remain the norm, particularly on platforms that are difficult to include links (like Instagram).
  2. Flat fees are predictable and more comfortable for publishers who are unfamiliar with other models. What an influencer will earn is laid out in front of them.
  3. They don’t know how much they’ll earn in commission from the post, because they don’t know their performance metrics or audience data.
  4. Content development requires time, and in many cases money. It’s easier to justify the development of high quality content when earning expectations are abundantly clear.

So how should you monetize?

The power of partnership

Working with brands as if they’re a partner rather than a transaction will pay dividends. Identify what you both need out of the relationship, and come to a pricing model that will yield the highest degree of success possible for both of you.

It’s not necessarily a matter of choosing one monetization model or the other, but being open to both, or considering the advantages of a hybrid model. Hybrid models will allow for an upfront investment from the brand, where your efforts are compensated upfront.

This upfront investment will be less than the total quantity a typical flat fee sponsored post would be, because the remaining compensation will be in the form of a commission. That means you can also reap the rewards of long term content monetization, where the sky's the limit for how much your content earns. The decision lays in your data, the brands goals, and the strength of your partnership.

If you are publishing content, you can earn money

content monetization: publish

As a content creator, you can better monetize your content by understanding your metrics. Don’t pay so much attention to vanity metrics (follower count, likes, impressions, etc.), but rather, understand how you offer value to the brand you promote. If you don’t have hard metrics to tout yet, hone in on the qualitative benefits of your audience reach, their characteristics, their propensity to visit the brands you share with them, and the type of content they like to see.

However you choose to define yourself, whether it’s as an influencer, an affiliate, or a content creator, if you are publishing content, you can earn money. Great partnerships are built on delivering a strong experience. That means considering the value you’re creating for your audience, while understanding how you can meet the goals of the brand you’re promoting. It’s up to you and the brand to define how best to monetize, and the only way to do this well is to understand your audience with ready-to-share performance and behavioural data.

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