No matter whether you have a blog, webcomic, photoblog, or any other kind of website, one of the best ways to make money is via advertising. Below is a summary that I wrote in 2008 and updated in 2009 and 2010, describing how to make money with ads. If you would like a more detailed, updated version which I wrote in 2012, for $1.99 you can download the 20 page PDF. It includes (1) a tutorial about how to put ads on your site if it's your first time, (2) tips on how to maximize your revenue, (3) an updated list of ad services I currently use, and (4) detailed statistics and earnings from my own website. I think it's a pretty good bargain, since it'll make you $1-2 per every 1,000 page view on your site!
Okay, now on to my old review. This is by no means an exhaustive list of ad services, just some of the ones that I have found to be best. If you have suggestions for an ad service I've left off the list, I would be interested in hearing about it. To skip to a specific review, use the following links:
Project Wonderful is the service you'll most likely see webcomic creators use because it was created by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. Lately, an increasing number of blogs and other sites are realizing what a great service it is.
Project Wonderful allows potential advertisers to bid on your ad space for a per day amount. The highest bidder wins having their ad on your site, with the lowest possible winning bid (like eBay). When the bidding is under 10 cents, it goes in 1 cent increments. So that if one person bids 2 cents and another bid 8 cents, the second person would win and have to pay 3 cents. Above 10 cents it goes in 10 cent increments instead. So, for example, if one person bids 40 cents and another bids 2 dollars, the second person wins and would have to pay 50 cents. If the two highest bids are for the same amount, the person who bid earlier wins. You'll get paid the winning bid amount (prorated if the ad only appeared a fraction of a day), minus a 25 percent cut that Project Wonderful takes (which is fairly reasonable compared other services). Bidders can include your site as part of an ad campaign where they choose a subset of sites (with a certain traffic threshold or matching keywords), and Project Wonderful automatically places the bids for them. Project Wonderful is a very open system. Your site's traffic is shared publicly so that bidders know the value of your ad spaces.
Project Wonderful provides a number of options for your ad space. First, you can choose to only accept bids over some minimum. I would suggest avoiding putting a minimum. Seeing that there is a minimum can be off-putting to some potential advertisers, which will make you less money in the long run because the demand is lower. The only exception is if you have a product you want to sell. Then you might feel that the ad space is better utilized advertising that product if the bids are too low.
The next issue is which ads to accept on your site. There are three options: 1. you can accept everything, 2. you can only accept family friendly ads, or 3. you can accept bids by hand. Which option you choose is mainly dependent on what kind of site you run. If your main customer is young children and you absolutely can't have any inappropriate ads on your site, then you'll want to choose option 3. In general, I find "accept everything" to be the best for the rest of us. If an inappropriate ad does pop up, Project Wonderful allows you to ban that advertiser from your site. More people will bid on your ad space (and drive up the price) if they don't have to wait for the ad to be approved. In addition, if you choose to accept ads by hand, it actually takes a little while from the time the bid is made to Project Wonderful notifying you to you okaying the bid. Most of the bids in campaigns expire within two days. Since it will sometimes take up to a day between when the ad was placed, till you okaying it, you're definitely losing money this way.
You'll also need to decide the size and quantity of your Project Wonderful ads slots. My philosophy is to put at least one large ad in a prominent place and at least a few smaller ads (like the 117 by 30 pixel buttons). The larger ad is for people who want to bid directly on your site. The buttons are because they will inevitably be filled by campaigns (which are most often button advertisements). Even if you put the buttons in a rather poor place, they will get filled for this reason, netting you an extra 20 to 40 cents per day. Generally 4 to 5 buttons is enough. If you have too many buttons and the demand is not great enough, it will drive the price down.
Out of all the ad services, Project Wonderful is most unique in that it is so heavily used by webcomic creators. This makes Project Wonderful a useful tool for becoming aquatinted with the webcomic community. Just by having a productive ad spot, people will visit your site to see from where they are getting the hits from. Because of the community building benefits, even though you may make more money from some of the other services, I would highly suggest adding Project Wonderful if you're just starting out with a webcomic.
One final note is that the relatively small community of Project Wonderful users can be a detriment once your site gets sufficiently popular. Because there are no companies like Nike or Coca-cola advertising through Project Wonderful, there is only so much a potential advertiser can afford. For this reason, you'll see many of the highest traffic sites (like SMBC) use Project Wonderful as secondary ads and other ad services for the most prominent ads spots.
Update September 2009: I have decided to replace the buttons with large square ads in the left column. These make a little more than the buttons did. I could probably throw some buttons on and make a little extra money with them too. But this would only make an extra 20 cents a day, and I'd prefer to have a less cluttered site.
Update May 2010: I have removed the large square ads in the left column, and now I only have a single skyscraper on the right side. As my site has gotten more popular, the bids for the Project Wonderful spots have not increased with it (a problem I discussed above). If I were only in it for the money, I would probably remove my Project Wonderful ads entirely at this point, but I feel it's nice to keep them around for fellow webcomic artists looking for a cheap way to plug their work.
If Project Wonderful is the most transparent of all the ad services, then Google Adsense a complete black box. And that black box is hidden in a safe, under a mountain, on an unknown planet. It's really a complete mystery what's going on with Adsense.
How Adsense works is that you tell them the size of the space you want to fill, and they'll serve ads to your site from their clients who use Google Adwords. How Google calculates the money you make is a complete mystery. The stats they give are basically the number of page views on your site, the number of clicks on ads, and how much you made. Although you clearly make more money for more clicks, how much you make for an individual click is not provided . If you use Adsense you'll find that some days you'll make a bunch of money, and other days you'll make next to nothing. And since Google considers their ad distribution techniques to be trade secrets, you'll never know why. I don't even think you can tell what cut Google takes from your profits.
Because Adsense almost only pay for clicks (and not just views), it is hard to make much when you are just starting out. Over the last year I've gotten hundreds of thousands of page views, and only made about $100. Perhaps sites with other types of content will be more successful than me. And don't think about clicking those ads yourself! Google warns to never do this, and I've heard of a few people being banned from Adsense when Google suspected them of self-clicking.
So what is Adsense good for then? As I'll describe below, the most common technique is to chain a few ads together for one ad space. That way if one service can't provide an ad, it will be sent to the next one. Since Google has the highest fill rate and pays the least, it's ideal for being the last in the chain.
Update May 2010: I have also added Adsense ads into my RSS feed. Since Google own both Adsense and Feedburner (the service that hosts my RSS feed), it was easy to do. If you'd like, Project Wonderful now also provides code that can be used in RSS feeds.
For a while ContextWeb was incredibly popular with blogs and webcomics, and for good reasons. For a modest amount of traffic (and by that I mean roughly 1000 or more page views per day), it pays better than any of the other services here. In addition, all the ads are from mainstream companies such as AT&T or Kaiser Permanente, so you don't have to worry about something controversial appearing on your site.
Unfortunately, during the end of 2008, ContextWeb began dropping many blogs and webcomics from their list of publishers. It is also now harder to sign up with them if you are just starting out. That said, if you have a professional, high-quality site, it doesn't hurt to see if they'll take you. If you have a webcomic, it especially helps if you have an accompanying blog, since this gives them more text to mine for placing ads.
How ContextWeb works is that for each ad spot you have, you specify how much you'll charge for an ad to appear there. That's right, you get to name your price. This is specified as a dollar amount per 1000 page view (called the CPM for "cost per mil"). If ContextWeb can fill the space for the price you specify, they will. If they can't fill the space, they'll fill the space with a replacement of your choice, such as having another ad service fill it. You can even make your own ads for things from your store and use that as the backup ad.
The most common question people ask is what CPM should I use for my ad space. The lower you set the price, the higher the fill rate. But I've found (almost paradoxically) that as long as you choose a "reasonable" CPM, you make just about the same money. For example, I put the CPM at $1 and I got a 30% fill rate. I put the CPM at $3 and I got a 10% fill rate. So basically I was making the same amount of money either way. But the latter case was clearly preferable because when ContextWeb couldn't fill it I could send the space to another advertiser more often. On the other hand, if I were to choose $10 CPM, my fill rate would be so low that I'd barely make any money. So there's some sweet spot, and the only way to find it is through experimentation.
Six Apart Media
Six Apart is the most recent service I've added. They are the same company that own TypePad and Movable Type, so as you can guess, their service caters toward bloggers. Nevertheless, they seem to have a lot of attractive qualities for webcomics as well.
When you sign up with Six Apart, they review your site and give you a list of potential advertisers, including samples of their ads and the CPM or cost per click for each. At any time you can reject any of the ads that you don't want on your site. All the ads I've seen are mainstream, family friendly, and professional, so I've never had to reject anything.
I find Six Apart pays slightly less than ContextWeb, so they may be a great alternative for blogs and webcomics that were banned from ContextWeb during the end of 2008. They also have less stringent traffic requirements, so they're easier to join than Tribal Fusion.
Update May 2010: A lot of things have happened with Six Apart Media since I originally wrote the above review. At the end of 2009 they were having a lot of problems. They were paying low, they were getting malware in their ads, and they weren't very responsive when I tried to contact them. So I removed them from my ad chains for a few month. In spring 2010 I got back in contact with them and tried using them again. It's like night and day. They are now by far my best paying ad service and have been great in every respect.
The following section on Technorati Media was added May 2010.
Technorati Media is another company that has a big presence in blogging circles, but have also entered the advertiser arena. I started using them during spring 2010 because Google Adsense has been so pathetic.
Technorati Media seems like they're still in the starting stages. When I was signing up with them, I actually did a lot of the interactions over the phone and email because they still don't have everything automated. Unfortunately, this means that the web interface doesn't give you very much control. If you want to blog certain ads or change your service around at all, you have to contact them directly.
Technorati Media boasts that they always fill the ad space. On the good side, this means they are perfect for putting at the end of an ad chain. On the bad side, just because you're getting the ads always filled, doesn't mean you're always making money from it! The CPM has been pretty atrocious so far, which confirms this worry. I make about $0.10-0.20 per 1000 page views with, which is 5 to 10 times less than ContextWeb and Six Apart Media. On the other hand, it's at least more than Google gives me, so I don't have a good reason to stop using them.
Like ContextWeb, Burst Media caters to lots of big name advertisers, like Toyota and Verizon. Unlike ContextWeb, they also have some more adult oriented ads (or things like smoking or alcohol related ads), but there are A LOT of different options for which ads you want on your site. Categories include video, audio, military, religious, animated, popups, pulldowns, fullscreen, and on and on. It's actually a little intimidating to go through, and I wasn't even familiar with many of the terms.
Once you have chosen which categories can run on your site, you get a list of "campaigns" that you can choose for your ad space. Each campaign consists of a graphical ad, and how much you'll get paid if that ad runs on your site (some are by CPM and some are per click). If you don't like a particular ad, or you don't think it pays enough, you can block it from appearing on your site.
I have been disappointed by the large cut Burst takes from my revenue (45%!) as well as their low fill rate. Because of this, I decided to stop running their ads in favor of Six Apart.
Webcomics World is a ad service run by a familiar name to the webcomics community, Joey Manley (of Modern Tales and Webcomics Nation). Unlike the other ad services here, Webcomics World doesn't actually do business with the advertisers (as far as I know). Instead they aggregate the ads from a number of other ad services for you. Since they are just starting, they are only accepting webcomics that get a little more traffic (like 60,000 page views per month). You can see a list of some of the participating comics here
On the positive side, by working with Webcomics World you can reduce how much you have to worry about chaining ads and following your revenue through multiple services because they do this all for you. Furthermore, they should be able to give you a fairly high fill rate.
But there are many negatives about their service, which has prevented me from using them. First, they take a substantial cut of your revenue (like 50% and this is after the ad services have also taken their cut). Next, you have less control over which ads will be on your site, because this is all controlled by them (in their defense, they will do their best to keep the ads family friendly and professional). Finally, they're just getting off the ground, so they do not have a very sophisticated computer system to report your earnings. They basically just send you a check each month.
If just getting a check each month, with no questions asked, sounds good to you, then Webcomics World may be perfect for your webcomic. If you don't mind doing a little more work, but having more control and making more money, then I suggest you look somewhere else.
Update September 2009: In the last few months I've heard a number of webcomic creators complaining that they are not getting their checks from Webcomics World. I would definitely recommend doing some more research on them before signing up!
Out of all these ad services, I have used Adbrite the least, so I correspondingly have the least info about them. But since they seem to be increasing in popularity, I figured I should at least speak to why I stopped using them.
Adbrite uses a bidding system very much like Project Wonderful. You can even have a "bid here" link by your ad spot. The big difference is that Adbrite has much larger advertising clients than Project Wonderful. While in principle, you may think this would mean more revenue, in practice this actually was a big reason why I stopped using them. Let me explain why.
First of all, although they have bigger clients, they unfortunately have a much looser screening process for what they allow. This means I was given a lot of adult oriented sites and suggestive dating sites. I didn't want these ads on my site, so I was going to have to spend a lot of time manually approving ads. When I went through their list of vendors I could see how sloppy they are with who they approve as advertisers. There are pages and pages of adult sites, many of them duplicated multiple times. I've been told that Adbrite is now strictly PG, but I don't use them anymore, so I can't confirm this.
Second of all, although there are more advertising clients, there are fewer webcomic advertisers. This made it extremely rare that someone would bid on my ad directly. In contrast, because Project Wonderful is so webcomic-centric, I get direct bids on my Project Wonderful spaces all the time.
Finally, I've heard rumors that Adbrite is involved with many of the spam advertisements you see on the internet (like the ones that make you think your computer's hard drive will be erased). I've also heard that the coding in Adbrite ads can be used to exploit spyware, trojans, and viruses. I don't know if any of this is true, but I don't want to allow a company with such a questionable reputation access to my website.
Summary of My Ad Strategy
I figured it might be helpful if I give a quick summary of the ads I have on my site and estimates of how much they make me. This will give you a place to start when it comes to putting ads on your own site. Even better, hopefully some of you will see this summary and give me suggestions on how to better my ad strategy!
From Project Wonderful, I have two square ads on the left sidebar and one skyscraper on the right sidebar. These are all set with no minimum bid requirement. I then have another skyscraper on the right sidebar, a rectangle near the bottom of the site, and a leaderboard right at the foot of the site. These are all set to chain from ContextWeb to Six Apart to finally Adsense.
Given this setup, and the fact I get around 8,000 page views per day from about 2,000 unique visitors (this was around June 2009), how much do I currently make? (And I say "currently" because it has been steadily rising since I first started the comic.) From Project Wonderful I make about $60 per month, from ContextWeb I make about $150 per month, and from Six Apart I make about $150 per month. Google Adsense has only paid me $100 in about a year, so they've been pretty crappy.
Update September 2009: I am now averaging about 12,000 page view per day from about 3,000 unique visitors. In the last month I made $300 from ContextWeb, $150 from Six Apart, and $100 from Project Wonderful.
Update May 2010: I have now changed around my ads significantly. I have two skyscrapers, a large rectangle, and a leaderboard, which all run ADSDQ > Six Apart > Technorati Media, or ContextWeb > Six Apart > Google Adsense. I've reduced my use of Project Wonderful to one skyscraper. Also, I've added one Google Adsense ad to my RSS feed. I am still averaging around 12,000 page view per day, but now around 4,000 unique visitors. The reason why the page views hasn't gone up much is that I'm advertising my site less now and regular readers don't look at as many pages as new readers. In the last month I made $250 from ContextWeb, $450 from Six Apart, $40 from Project Wonderful, $30 from Google Adense, and $15 from Technorati Media. A couple of comments about the changes: you can see that ContextWeb is doing pretty poorly considering I've added an extra ad skyscraper for it. ContextWeb has been doing pretty bad in general since 2010 started (the economy?). On the other hand, Six Apart has been amazing. This is just how ad services are, one month they're crap, the next month they're awesome, there's no way to explain it. You may wonder, if Six Apart is so amazing, why are they still second in your ad chain? The reason is that ContextWeb pays $1 CPM while Six Apart typically pays $0.6-0.7 CPM, so I still want to give ContextWeb the first crack at any ad spot. The problem with ContextWeb is that the fill rate has been really low (typically 20-30%).
Ad Services I Haven't Tried
Here are a few ad services I haven't tried. If you have any experience with these (good or bad), I would be interested in hearing about it.
Yahoo Publisher Network: They appear to be fairly similar to Google's Adsense, so I haven't had an incentive to try them out.
Tribal Fusion: From everything I've heard, they are one of the best paying ad services available. They require 5,000 unique hits per day, so I am still waiting to get more consistent traffic in this range.
Gorilla Nation: They require 500,000 page views per month, so it will be a while until I get a chance to try them.
What About No Ads?
Another option that many forget to mention is no ads at all. There is definitely a potential audience out there who will feel more connected and invested in your comic if there are no ads present. Comics such as Achewood, xkcd, and Minus are all examples of this. The key is that your comic has to be one that will attract the kind of person who values a site without ads, and I think all three of these comics do that. In contrast I think my webcomic is fairly mainstream (in format and subject matter), so most of my audience probably doesn't care too much one way or another.
Going without ads may be hard at first because there won't be any other revenue streams available to you (you won't have the reader base to sell products), so you'll basically be doing it for free for a while. Another issue is that if you start a website without ads and start gaining regular readers, it may be a big turn off to them if you decide to add advertisements later. Just something to think about.
If you found this page useful, you may also enjoy my 20 page PDF for $1.99 on making money with ads. It's updated with current information about my advertising strategy, and it also has a more general background for those of you that are just getting started with advertising.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts or feedback, I'd be happy to hear from you!