Darren Kitchen, shown with Shannon Morse, a host on his webcast, sells items on his computer-hacking Web site.
Casting the digital equivalent of a message-in-a-bottle into the Internet’s vast sea of content, many people start Web sites or blogs hoping that they will find an appreciative audience for their precocious parrot videos, cupcake recipes or pithy commentary on everyday life. The dream, of course, is that they will develop a large and loyal following — and potentially profit from it.
Cloud photos taken by Kelly DeLay on his Web site, the Cloud 365 Project. Visitors donate a total of $200 to $400 a month to the site.
While most of these self-publishers don’t attract the attention of anyone other than indulgent family and friends, there are those who find wider recognition and some income. What the successful have in common is a passion for their subject and a near-compulsion to share what they know. Advertising, merchandising, offline events, book deals, donations and sometimes sheer luck also play a part.
“My advice is to choose a topic you’ll never get tired of,” said Stephanie Nelson, 47, of Atlanta, a homemaker who founded CouponMom.com in 2001 to share tips on saving money by using coupons. “The first three years I made no money at all, so I had to love what I was doing to keep going.”
Ms. Nelson said her Web site now has more than 3.8 million visitors a month, and the income it generates supports her family of four — allowing her husband to retire early from his corporate job five years ago. “I’m still not tired of it,” Ms. Nelson said.
Half of the site’s revenue comes from Google’s AdSense service, and the other half is from companies like Groupon and LivingSocial that buy ads directly from her. AdSense generates ads based on the words that appear on Web pages. For example, if a blog post is about dogs, ads for dog food or dog grooming might appear beside it.
Many of the Google ads generate income only if people click on them — usually yielding a fraction of a cent per click. It’s also possible to get paid every time a Google ad appears on a page. Rates are determined in part by advertisers bidding in an online auction.
Other companies like BuySellAds.com and BlogAds allow self-publishers to determine what they want to charge for placing an ad on their sites. They then match sites with eager advertisers for a percentage of ad sales — 14 to 30 percent is typical.
Federated Media, which is a sort of Web talent management company, is more selective, negotiating rates on behalf of independent content creators it agrees to represent. In general, online ad rates vary widely, from $54,000 a day for an ad on a popular blog like PerezHilton.com to $10 a month for an ad on the cartoon blog The Soxaholix. (The New York Times Company is an investor in Federated Media.)
Clayton Dunn, 32, and Zach Patton, 31, the bloggers behind The Bitten Word, make around $350 a month from pay-per-click Google ads, and in commissions from Amazon.com when readers follow links to cooking gadgets, books and magazine subscriptions they recommend. Mr. Dunn and Mr. Patton, who live in Washington and blog about recipes they have tried from popular magazines, started the site in 2008 and now have about 150,000 visitors a month.
“It more than pays for the groceries,” said Mr. Dunn, who added that they are further compensated by readers who may give them delicacies like fresh avocados and Hawaiian ginger syrup.
For those who want to generate more income through advertising, Jonathan Accarrino of Hoboken, N.J., founder of the technology news and how-to blog MethodShop.com, advises having contextual ads, which are highlighted words in posts that provide a link to the vendor of a relevant product or service. A commission is paid on resulting sales.
Adding video to a post is another strategy that Mr. Accarrino said contributes to his blog’s six-figure yearly income: “I’ll record video walk-throughs of my tutorials and upload them to Blip.tv,” a video sharing service similar to YouTube. And like YouTube, Blip.tv gives users the option to run ads with their videos. These generate $1 to $10 for every thousand views, depending on the advertiser.
Indeed, many video bloggers, or vloggers, make money this way. Sheila Ada-Renea Hollins-Jackson, a 22-year-old makeup artist in Farmington, Mich., makes up to $200 a month from the 63 videos about beauty treatments she has posted on YouTube since 2008. “It pays my cellphone bill,” she said. Vloggers either apply or are invited by YouTube to display ads based on demonstrated viewership or outstanding content.
Selling merchandise on a vlog, blog or personal Web site can bring in even more cash. Darren Kitchen, 28, of San Francisco said he makes $5,000 a month selling stickers, T-shirts, baseball caps and computer hacking tools on his Web site, Hak5.org, which offers a weekly video show about computer hacking.
“It’s crazy how many people want the stickers,” said Mr. Kitchen, who started Hak5 in 2005 and says he has 250,000 monthly viewers.
Book deals are the ultimate goal for many bloggers who are aspiring writers. Molly Wizenberg, 32, of Seattle, started her blog, Orangette, in 2004 as a way to hone her writing skills after dropping out of a Ph.D. program in anthropology.
Her musings about food and life attracted 350,000 visitors a month and the attention of Simon & Schuster, which led to the publication last year of her book, “A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table.” Last month she signed a contract to write another book. “It’s beyond what I ever imagined,” Ms. Wizenberg said.
Some people simply ask their fans and followers to make donations to support their creative efforts. Kelly DeLay of Frisco, Tex., said he gets $200 to $400 a month from visitors to his Web site, The Clouds 365 Project, where he posts a daily photograph of cloud formations. “People can be very generous,” said Mr. DeLay, who began taking pictures of clouds full-time after he was laid off from his job as an interactive media director last year.
Charging for content is also an option. Collis Ta’eed, 31, of Melbourne, Australia, founded FreelanceSwitch.com, which gives practical advice to freelancers, and Tuts+, which offers technology-related tutorials. He said he brought in $150,000 a month from his sites, most of it from premium content — primarily tutorials and e-books.
“People will pay for content if you offer them something of value that is authentic and is generally useful,” said Mr. Ta’eed, who said his two blogs together have 6.4 million visitors a month. One example of useful content is FreelanceSwitch’s job board, which brings in $7,000 a month, he said. Job posters pay nothing; job seekers pay $9 a month.
And sometimes people will pay to attend events organized by bloggers they admire. Steve Pavlina of Las Vegas said he made $40,000 from weekend workshops that were an outgrowth of his blog, StevePavlina.com, which focuses on issues related to personal development. He started the blog in 2004 and says it has 2.5 million visitors a month. Besides workshops, he said he made about $100,000 a month in commissions from sales of products like speed-reading courses and high-speed blenders that he recommends on his blog.
“I tell people if they want to start a blog just to make money, they should quit right now,” Mr. Pavlina said. “You have to love it and be passionate about your topic."