EDITOR’S NOTE: This post deals with how to monetize a fansite, either as a self-sustaining hobby or a full-fledged business. In the interest of being as open as possible, there are no affiliate links in this post. In other words, we don’t make any money on any of the links you click on.
Fansites are everywhere, even if you don’t always realize it. If you’ve ever Googled a problem about your car, your search results might have taken you to an enthusiast forum devoted to your specific car. If you’ve ever searched for a question about your favorite sports team, you might have landed on a fansite that only writes about your team. If you’ve ever wondered when a music artist or band is coming to your town, you might have wound up on a fansite that only covers your band.
A fansite is generally defined as a site — a blog, a message board, or perhaps both — devoted to a specific celebrity, brand, thing, or social phenomenon. Over the years, I’ve worked with a couple of different sites that might be classified as fansites. Since 2007, I’ve written off and on for Nintendojo, a fansite devoted to all things Nintendo related. In 2016, I founded my own site, Aldi Reviewer, a niche product review blog about Aldi (and occasionally Trader Joe’s).
The term fansite can be a little misleading. For one thing, it implies that the site in question is all about worshiping the ground the subject walks on. That’s understandable, since the word fan — short for fanatic — is half of the term. And, let’s be honest: some fansites are indeed about nothing more than brand worship.
But not all. Some fansites, in fact, can be sharply critical of specific aspects of the subject, even if they’re generally positive on the brand as a whole. (Sites that are more universally negative about a brand or subject might be better classified as watchdog sites.) A car enthusiast blog, for example, might be critical of a recurring defective part in the brand it covers, while a sports team site might criticize decisions by the players, coaches, or management. In my opinion, these are the best fansites: the ones that have a deep knowledge of the brand that comes from following it, coupled with a realistic attitude about the brand’s successes and shortcomings.
A second misleading part about the term fansite is that it may imply a site that is a hobby rather than a business. There’s no question that most fansites out there are probably hobbies, little corners of the world carved out just to write about a company’s products or a musician’s tour dates. But in recent years, especially, we’ve seen an explosive growth in fansites that are actually full-fledged businesses.
And make no mistake about it: fansites can be big business. Consider just a few examples:
- In technology, Mobile Nations is a digital publisher specializing in a number of sites, including several brand-specific sites that orbit around specific tech companies: Android Central (Google), Windows Central (Microsoft), iMore (Apple), and Crackberry (Blackberry). According to Mobile Nation’s site, Android Central gets over 18 million visitors per month.
- In sports, Vox Media’s SBNation operates hundreds of team-focused blogs across college and professional sports. Fansided does the same.
- In automotive, AutoGuide runs literally hundreds of active forums on a huge swath of car models.
However, business-oriented fansites aren’t just about big corporations. Consider these examples:
- Android Authority is an independent site that, like Android Central, focuses on anything and everything related to Google and Android phones.
- TideFans is an independent site devoted the University of Alabama’s men’s football and basketball teams.
- Corollaland is an independent site focused on one specific Toyota car model.
All of these sites focus on different subjects, but all of them have two things in common: 1) they all orbit around a specific brand and 2) they all are run like businesses, with income and expenditures.
Are You Running a Hobby or a Business?
Let’s assume for a moment that you have a fansite, or are at least thinking about creating one. One of the things you need to decide, at some point, is whether you’re running a hobby or a business.
What’s the difference? In IRS terms, it’s actually pretty simple: a hobby is something you do that consistently loses money, and a business is something you do that consistently makes money. If your blog costs you money year after year, and that never changes, you’ve probably got a hobby on your hands. On the other hand, if your message board actually makes you a profit, however small, then you fall under the category of business.
You may not know at first what you want. Some people start their fansites simply as hobbies, only to later realize they can be viable businesses. Other fansites start up hoping to be businesses only to realize they will only draw enough attention to be hobbies. If the area you want to write about is already saturated with similar sites — or if your subject is being eaten up by broad corporate sites that also write extensively about your brand — you may have trouble getting much traffic.
Is It Wrong to Run a Fansite as a Business?
Some people may wonder if it is wrong to take something holy and pure like a fansite and run it for profit. For the most part, I think the answer is no.
Certainly it is legal. The courts have generally said that, as long as certain conditions are met, that a site can incorporate the name of a trademarked subject. If you create a site called duracellworld.com and do nothing but talk about Duracell batteries, you can do so as long as you’re not just squatting on the name or misleading visitors into thinking your site is actually that of Duracell itself.
But I also think that running a fansite as a business is, in most cases, perfectly ethical, too. I have nothing but respect for people who can find a niche they enjoy and discover a way that they can cover it as part-time work — or even full-time work! — that supports them. Being able to labor for what they love is not only a dream realized, but it enables them to share more of their love with the wider Internet world. A full time blogger about Subaru who has the means to go and test Subarus can help current or potential Subaru owners make informed decisions or navigate uncertain issues, while a Pittsburgh Pirates blogger who has the money to go to spring training or attend games can provide much better insight to other fans. In my view, that’s awesome.
The only time I think it’s not ethical is if it’s a scam or if a fansite compromises its core values purely for the sake of money. (More on this later.) That’s true of any business, though, not just fansites.
Where Can The Money Come From?
Let’s assume for the moment, though, that you are operating your site as a business and you have enough traffic to turn that traffic into some money. Or maybe you just want to run it as a hobby … but you’d like to at least break even, so the hobby is paying for itself.
Where can that money come from?
This is a complex question, because while there are a lot of ways to make money on a blog or message board, some of them are more appropriate or relevant to the fansite style of site than others. What follows are a list of some possible sources of income. I’ve ranked them from what I think are most appropriate to least appropriate for a fansite. To reach those rankings (which are admittedly subjective), I’ve considered both my own experience as well as looking at dozens of fansites across various subjects to see what are the most common practices.
One more thing before I continue: from both experience and research, I think the very best thing you can do for a fansite is to create content. In other words, if your blog is putting out high-quality, regular posts and / or your message board is active, then you’ve set yourself up to succeed. In the quest for monetizing the site, never lose sight of the bread and butter that brought you there — good, honest content.
Advertising is, in my view, the safest, best, starting point when it comes to monetizing any fansite. Ad networks provide passive income for blogs when visitors view and click on the ads. Ads are everywhere, so users know to expect them and don’t see them as a negative on a site as long as the ads don’t crowd out the content. Almost every business-oriented fansite that I’ve visited — and a lot of hobby-oriented ones — use some form of advertising.
One downside to ads is that they may not necessarily pay a lot, especially at first. A low-traffic blog running an ad network may only make a few dollars per thousand views, which may only translate into pocket change. If a blog can grow, that number can go up and also open up opportunities for higher-level ad networks. For example, a new blogger might use Google Adsense, a tried-and-true ad network, but if they reach the thresholds for page views they may be able to look into higher-paying ad networks like AdThrive or Mediavine. (At the time of this post, my Aldi blog, Aldi Reviewer, uses AdThrive.)
2. Affiliate Marketing
Affiliate marketing is another relatively safe avenue for income generation. Affiliate marketing is where a blogger links to specific products, and if users click through and buy the specific products, then the blogger gets a cut of the profit. Getting into these affiliate programs is not generally hard, and depending on the products and the situation, the payouts can be anywhere from small to pretty large. I know some bloggers who make more off of affiliate marketing than they do ad networks. Amazon Associates is the most well-known affiliate network, although there are many others, including some networks specific to brands. (I use Amazon Associates on Aldi Reviewer.)
How relevant affiliate marketing is to a fansite depends entirely on what the fansite is about. Most fansites can probably find some way to tie affiliate products to their work, and many of the business-focused fansites I’ve visited use some sort of affiliate marketing. If the fansite is about old cars, then affiliate links to car parts might be entirely appropriate to the site. The same might be true if a sports fansite is linking to sports apparel, a tech fansite is linking to game consoles, or a music artist fansite is linking to the artist’s music.
The only warning here is to make sure that the affiliate links don’t corrupt your content. If your blog becomes more about selling affiliate products than covering the brand you cover, your readers will figure it out, and your site will suffer for it. The temptation to make a few extra dollars isn’t worth sacrificing your site’s long-term future.
3. Guides or e-books
Most fansites are repositories of information, and most fansite owners are experts in the brands they follow. There are a number of ways that a fansite owner can leverage a fansite to offer a guide or an e-book on the topic. A fansite following a team could produce a season preview, for example, while a site covering a specific cell phone could detail a how-to guide. A fansite owner might even find a way to write a book, like perhaps the history of the brand the site follows. (I’ve written two editions of an e-book on the brand I follow, Aldi.) There are any number of ways to put that knowledge to use.
Once you have a book or a guide, there are two ways that I know of to put it to use: 1) as a product you sell or 2) as a bonus for users who take a certain action. Both are fine, although what works best for you in a certain situation may vary. You might choose to sell your book or guide on your site or on Amazon, or you might use it as a reward for people who sign up for your mailing list or your message board. Using it as a reward doesn’t necessarily give you direct income, but it may give you indirect income if it makes people more likely to go to the places where your ads or affiliate links are.
I don’t see a lot of guides or books on fansites, unless you count guides that are actually posted as blog posts, but I don’t see any reason why fansites couldn’t use them.
4. Memberships or Services
Some fansites offer paid services or memberships above and beyond their regular content. These sites might have, say, paid content, or use a program like Patreon where people pledge money in exchange for some special insider benefit. I didn’t see a lot of this on the fansites I visited, but I did see a few blogs that had memberships for access to special privileges, such as access to premium content or a private fan community. For a high-traffic fansite that gets a lot of devoted readers, this could be an option.
I have thought hard about implementing different services on my own brand-focused site, although to date I haven’t yet done so. A lot of my own concerns are about whether there would be sufficient interest, even given the fact that my traffic is reasonably good. That is something every fansite owner would have to figure out for themselves.
Unlike affiliate programs where you earn a commission on someone else’s products, some sites produce their own products and then sell them. Products might include t-shirts, hats, cups or mugs, bags, keychains, and other items. I’ve known bloggers who sell their own products and make a lot of money off of them, so it is one way to grow income in a site.
I’m less confident, though, in whether products are viable for a brand site or fansite. In looking over the major fansites and brand sites out there, only a small few of them actually sell their own products. It doesn’t seem all that common. Some of that may have to do with the fact that fansites are treading into potential trademark territory by selling swag with another company’s name. It can be done, but it has to be done carefully.
In addition, setting up and running a merchandising business, with selling and returns and customer service, is also a whole new layer of work beyond the site, which could skim valuable time away from writing content. Many fansites might conclude that producing new writing for readers is a better use of time than haggling with customers. It’s a major reason I haven’t sold products of my own yet.
6. Sponsored Posts
A sponsored post happens when someone pays to post on your site. I see this all the time on corporate sites: businesses pay to basically write an advertisement, in the form of a post or video, that pretends to solve a problem but is pretty much just about advertising a product or service. I did see a few larger corporate-owned fansites that used sponsored posts, although even among corporate-owned fansites I didn’t see them often.
Sponsored posts can be tempting, because if you have a site with decent traffic you can get a fairly big payout, but there are a couple of real risks with sponsored posts on fansites. One is that it can hurt your trust with readers if it looks like you’re shilling things that aren’t at the core of who you are. A second: some bloggers I’ve read have indicated that the hassle of working with the post, including editing it, is more work than it’s worth … again, that’s time that could be spent creating your own original content.
Personally, while I’m not totally opposed to sponsored posts, as a practical matter I’ve never accepted one myself. Many fansites out there, especially ones not owned by a larger corporation, seem to take the same approach.
Rather than offer a membership or service, some fansites simply ask users for money through a tip jar or donation button. That’s easy enough, and honestly it’s not hard to set up a donate button through, say, PayPal.
If it’s that easy, why is it #7 on my list? Two big reasons.
One, most anecdotes I’ve read suggest that they’re not effective. People are generally choosy about when they give their money away for nothing in return.
Two, donation buttons may actually hurt your site. Some people might feel like the fansite is panhandling or is not a legitimate site by asking for cash.
In looking over various major fansites and brand-focused sites, I’m not sure I saw so much as a single one that solicited donations anywhere on their site. I think tip jars and donation buttons are something major sites have decided are not worth having. I think that’s a good rule to follow.
On paper, courses are some of the most lucrative financial opportunities for a blogger. I’ve interacted with bloggers who can essentially generate full-time income selling courses, usually on subjects like finances or cooking or homeschooling or any number of other issues. (Or blogging!) If you do a course right, crafting and selling a course can be a powerful way to generate income.
The problem is that I’m not sure courses are relevant or appropriate to most fansites. I’m not sure many people are interested in paying for a course on how to appreciate a rock band or how to play video games. There might be some exceptions, like how to repair a specific car, but even then the amount of free information on YouTube and elsewhere probably limits what you’ll be able to get.
So while selling courses is great for some blogs, for fansites they’re probably not worth the trouble in most instances. It takes hours to craft a good online course, hours that might — once again — be better spent on content.
Creating a brand-focused site is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, and it is more satisfying in many ways than I anticipated it would be. It’s a bonus when a fansite can also be a source of income, both to further the mission of the fansite and, yes, even for some profit. While it may seem somehow wrong to talk about money when it comes to a fansite, some of the best fansites out there are run by people who have the freedom to write deeply about the brand thanks to the financial resources the site generates.
At the same time, as I hope my thoughts show, I think that money must always serve the content, and not the other way around. I’m not opposed to things like keyword research and thinking about what readers want — even hobby sites should be thinking about how to spread their content — but the moment the money changes the content into something it shouldn’t be, like hawking products, you risk losing reader trust and becoming something different than your site once was. It’s a hard line to walk.
In the end, I think the core principle is this: come up with great content, either in the form of blog content and / or a message board, and place revenue opportunities in there that complement rather than corrupt the content. Do that, and I believe that, more often than not, readers will reward you by coming back.