When Monetizing Online Forums was published, back in July of 2012, we wanted to show community professionals and owners that there were more ways to monetize a community than traditional display ads. We talked about display advertising, and how to do it right, but we discussed several other methods that could allow you to shift away from display ads while potentially generating even more revenue.

I was reminded of that goal this week when the discussion around ad blocking reached new heights, thanks to Apple. I don’t want to talk about ad blocking today. Instead, I want to help you diversify and discover new methods of generating revenue, that won’t be affected by ad blocking. If you want to know more about these methods, Monetizing Online Forums is a free download.

The fact is, communities take money. If you run your community as a hobby, expenses can add up. If you run your community part- or full-time, you need to earn a living in order to do so and accomplish your life goals. Many people who work in community do so at companies that sell products, but for plenty of us, the community itself is our focus and the product.

Premium Memberships

Some people won’t use ad blocking at all because it makes them uncomfortable. Some people will always use it and will never pay a dime for anything. But between these two extremes exists the reluctant ad blocker who would pay something if you only gave them the option. This is where premium memberships come in.

As part of a premium membership, you can grant members special perks and an ad-free experience. $3 to $10 a month tends to be the average membership fee, though great benefits and professional communities can range higher (see program examples).

There is a great chance that you might earn more from these members than you would have earned from advertising (which is $0, if they blocked all of it). Even if they didn’t block it, you can look at your website analytics and estimate how many ad impressions an average member might accrue in a month. You can then look at the average CPM (cost per one thousand impressions) that you earn from ads.

Easy math: if your average CPM is $1 and an active member counts as 3,000 ad impressions per month, then you would make $3 in a month from that member. It’s probably a little less, just because a member who visits a lot will have seen more of the lower paying ads than someone who visits much less.

Charge Brands for Access to Your Community

I’m not necessarily saying that you should charge brands simply to register an account and answer a question, but there are plenty of opportunities, beyond display advertising, for brands to receive value from your community.

They could pay to have a sponsored section related to their products. They could pay for brand-specific premium memberships that provide them with business-minded benefits and show they support the community. They could send products for your members to review. They could post surveys and host focus groups for new product lines.

Display advertising has some of us (on both the brand and community sides) acting like that is all there is. Think about how else you can connect with the companies who want to reach your members, in a more meaningful way than putting some ads on the page.

Classified and Thread-Based Native Advertising

I’ve been talking about the value of classified-esque ads in communities for years. Two of my favorite examples are 99designs and Flippa, two successful businesses that began as individual forums on a much larger community.

The premise here is simple: providing a low-cost way of advertising to your members in an area where members specifically go to read ads. It works just like Craigslist or like the classified section in a newspaper. We know that these are ads – we specifically choose to view them because we’re looking for something or we’re curious. Since we have to specifically choose to view them, there is no need to block them.

And yet, a lot of money can be made from them. If someone wants to sell some bike parts, they aren’t going to buy a display ad, but they might post in the classifieds section of your bike forum. They might pay $5, $10 or $20 to do so.

You can take a similar approach to in-stream advertisements. If you are a forum, this means that a brand is allowed to post an ad as a forum thread. This format can allow them to go deeper than a display ad can. When properly disclosed and highlighted, this can be a solid way to integrate advertising into your community.

Product Development

If your community is mature and focuses on a niche, you probably have experts of that niche in your community. You can partner with them to develop products to sell.

For example, I manage a martial arts community with a ton of amazing people on it. If I wanted to, I could launch a series of ebooks about the martial arts, including training tips, how to run a school, how to develop a martial arts website, etc. Just like a normal book deal, I could sign an author from the community, have them write an amazing book, support their writing with professional editing and design, and publish it. We could sell it on the community and through independent outlets like Amazon.

Ebooks are just one example. You could do mobile apps, video tutorials, music, physical goods and whatever else you can come up with, that will be valuable to your members.


When people think about events, they envision massive conferences and festivals that take many months to plan. While that is an option, you don’t necessarily have to be (or think) massive.

You can always host smaller, regional events. With a strict adherence to budget, profit is possible. Digital events (usually video based) have less overhead. A once-off webinar isn’t that hard to plan, where a multi-track conference will cost you a chunk of your life (or someone’s life, anyway).

Events can be a difficult business, especially in-person ones. But if you have the wherewithal to plan one, that’ll open up a world of sponsorships and ticket sales.

Experiment and Diversify

My point here isn’t to suggest that display advertising is to be abandoned, but to encourage you to explore the wider world of monetization that exists. It is quite possible that there are methods you haven’t tried that will work better for you than display advertising ever has.

In order to discover those methods, you must put them into action, experiment with them and track their success. Diversifying your monetization strategy will make you stronger and more adaptable to whatever comes next.