What Writers Must Know about Internet Commerce

by : Jo Ann LeQuang

Let's assume you're a writer and you want to make money by writing. In the olden days (last year, maybe) you would think up an article idea, hammer a few paragraphs out, and then check with some editors if they were interested in buying a finished product.

If you were lucky, you sold it. If you were not exactly unlucky, the editor rejected your idea but paid you to go out and write something else. And the most common response was a great big bunch of nothing. No response. No answer. No sale.

You have probably heard that a writer can make money on the Internet, but you're probably thinking, "How on earth is that possible?" After all, just about every job offer that comes to writers for Internet type stuff pays less than even a skinflint magazine editor would have paid ten years ago for the same material. The big difference is that the Internet publishers seeking writing support want their content virtually overnight and the old-fashioned editors did not mind giving you a few weeks.

There are two ways to make money on the Internet and they mirror the ways people make money in the brick-and-mortar business world. First, you can sell something. Whether it's ceiling fans or candles or airline tickets, you can make money if you have a product that you can trade to people for cash.

The other way you can make money online is by selling advertising. The best models for this include TV programs, magazines, and newspapers. Take a TV program; it's content that is offered for free to people who want to see it. A newspaper isn't exactly free, but it contains a lot of high-value content from around the world and it's offered at a very nominal fee (less than it costs to print it, I bet) to just about anyone who wants it. They'll even bring it to your house every morning! Who else will deliver for a product that does not even cost a dollar-for no extra shipping and handling fee?

Then there are magazines. They cost more but they're still a great buy considering the content you get, the articles, the pictures, and the sheer volume of printed pages.

So how do these enterprises make money? They do it by offering content that people want and then selling advertisement. TV shows make money because they sell some of their viewing time to advertisers who offer commercials. Newspapers and magazines do take in some subscription money, but the thing that keeps them in business is ad revenue.

And how do advertisers manage to survive? Smart businesses know the best opportunities for their particular type of advertisements. There's a whole science to that. If a well-placed smart commercial on a certain TV show increases sales, then everybody wins. The company earns money because the ad draws customers; the TV show earns money because it sells time (and eyeballs) to the advertiser.

You can build a website that features lots of top-quality content and then sell advertising on that site.

Now you can't just throw up any old site (and the operative word here is "throw up") and figure that advertising will work. You need a quality product. You also have to offer something of value.

That's where the good news comes in: you're a writer.

You can create your own online magazine of sorts. The goal is to attract people interested in the same subject to look at your site. There's a whole science to that, too. But if you do it right, people on your site may be interested in ads on related subjects.

The Internet is all about niches. Let's say you want to write about dogs. Bad idea. It's too broad for the Internet. With the Internet you have to think narrow. You could write about dog training. Or adopting poodles from the pound. Or photographing dogs.

The idea is that your highly targeted information will resonate with a particular subset of readers. With billions of Internet search a year, you don't need to have broad appeal to get a big audience.

Then you sell advertising. Now in the traditional business model, that meant pounding the pavement, talking to potential advertisers, and often working with them to get an ad finalized. Then you had to hound them for payment.

On the Internet, you can sign up with search providers to put ads on your site. These ads (offered by the big search engines) use electronic algorithms to automatically match ads by content to your site so that your dog training site won't offer ads for gastric bypass surgery. You don't sell a single ad: you merely clear some room for Google or Yahoo to put ads on your site. They match the ads to your content.

In the print world of our ancient ancestors, an advertiser paid if his ad ran, regardless of whether anyone responded. Internat ads work on a different model; they run for free and the advertiser pays only when somebody clicks on them. This is what is meant when they say advertisers pay for clicks.

The good news is that you can find qualified advertisers and start generating ad revenues from a website pretty quickly without ever having direct contact with your advertisers.

You can also get advertisers the old-fashioned way by selling space on your site to individual vendors. Those arrangements are worked out individually.

Savvy Internet entrepreneurs can make money either selling products (including electronic products like e-books or online courses and now even online audios) or selling advertising or a bit of both. There are strategies for what to use and how, but those are the basics.

So what exactly does this mean for us writers? Writers need to start thinking about what they write not just in terms of how to tell the story, but how to best position the content in the marketplace.

If you can set up a wholesale arrangement with local or even international vendors, you can sell products using a "shopping cart" type website, lots of photos, and some cool product descriptions.

If you have the expertise (or can get it) and can write about how to beat a speeding ticket, land a job working on a cruise ship, or sell your home without a real estate agent, you can write electronic content (e-book, e-course, other materials that are delivered online including audios and videos) and sell that.

First, of course, you have to understand how these kinds of enterprises actually function. Even some off-the-wall business angles are good to study, because the same principles always apply. You target a specific niche market, develop content to attract visitors, and then sell either advertising, products, or both.