For the second time in less than a year, YouTube has made policy changes that have shaken its community of creators by directly affecting how much money they are able to make from ads. The reasons behind it are nuanced, but valid or not, the changes have many professional creators concerned about their over-reliance on ads for their future income.
Professional artists and creators should view themselves as small businesses, and it’s risky for any business to be too reliant on one source of revenue or too dependent on one platform. So what’s the solution? Diversifying your income streams.
This doesn’t mean you need to abandon a platform altogether, or that you should compromise your creative projects because they aren’t “ad-friendly.” It simply means exploring alternative ways to generate income using your videos.
So, what are the alternative monetization strategies?
It may seem a little overwhelming to add on new operations to your business, but when you start to dig deeper, you’ll notice that many of them are just natural extensions of the work you already do. The best current monetization strategies can be neatly grouped into a few major buckets:
Direct sponsorships and brand deals
Physical products and merch
Digital products, courses, and ebooks
Consulting and private lessons
Services and freelance work
Subscriptions and memberships
Licensing your content
Paid speaking gigs
Great! Let’s do ’em all.
Well, not so fast. Spreading yourself too thin is just as bad as doing nothing. It will take up too much of your time and produce underwhelming results. You are best off choosing just 1 or 2 of the strategies and focusing on them until they are generating enough income to free up your time to focus on others.
Easy enough. Just start with the best one, right?
Well, each method is better suited for different types of creators. But luckily, we’ve done most of the heavy lifting to map that out for you.
In the remainder of this article we analyzed each of these methods and clearly outlined who should use them. We also found some stellar examples from top creators and reached out to them for advice, so you can see how they are using them and learn from the best.
Cost: No cost
Time: Very small upfront time investment to apply to the affiliate programs of the sites you use most
Earning potential: Low-medium
Who should use them: EVERYONE
This is the one monetization strategy that everyone should be using regardless of what type of videos you make. Adding affiliate links in descriptions takes very little time and can bring in consistent revenue for any creator.
Smarter Every Day is a youtube channel dedicated to making science accessible to everyone by exploring interesting scientific concepts with everyday objects and explaining them in layman’s terms.
Destin Sandlin understands his audience is made of intellectually curious people interested in learning more about the world around them, so he chose an affiliate to match: Audible. But that isn’t always enough. He explains that he wouldn’t advertise with Audible if he didn’t use and enjoy the service himself. “Your audience can sense when you truly believe in your sponsor. You should never sell something you have never used or don’t believe in.”
And to take things one step further, instead of simply recommending Audible, Destin links to a list of all his personal book recommendations, with each book containing his affiliate link. He recognized his viewers most common question (what are his book recommendations) and turned that into a more thoughtful and personalized experience. His followers feel more connected and he gets higher conversion rates by helping them overcome the biggest obstacle to signing up for Audible: choosing a book!
Evan Puschak, creator of The Nerdwriter, has a similar understanding of his demographic. He will rotate offers for similar services catering to people pursuing educational content like Audible and The Great Courses Plus. Evan notes the importance of writing down your principles early on so you aren’t tempted to compromise your creative integrity later on for sponsors. His advice is to make a list and make those standards clear to potential sponsors. It will also make your decisions easier. Here’s his list:
- Sponsor cannot choose video topic.
- Sponsor cannot give notes or ask for changes.
- Sponsor cannot see video before it airs.
- Sponsorship will not be integrated into the “video proper” in any way, but only appear on the end-screen after a few seconds of black.
- I have to be sympathetic with the brand/client.
Kevin of SnowboardProCamp built his channel to help educate aspiring snowboarders. So naturally,many of his viewers look to him for recommendations when choosing or upgrading their gear as they look to improve their snowboarding. Kevin uses affiliate links to all of the products featured in each of his videos:
Even though he rarely talks about his equipment, people admire his production style so much, that Casey Neistat constantly gets inquiries about what gear he is using. In fact, he gets them so often, that he put the answer in an FAQ in the about section of his YouTube profile (in addition to putting it in the description of each of his videos).
Check out the snippet from his profile. They all use affiliate links: The lesson here is not to overlook your equipment as potential revenue sources. People will want to imitate and replicate your work and style. Even if you never mention the equipment you are using in your videos, these are all opportunities generate income.
When I said everyone should use this strategy, I meant everyone. Corridor Digital made an awesome action video using only Nerf guns purely for entertainment purposes, and decided to include amazon affiliate links to every gun used in the video description. 22 million views later, I’d bet they’re glad they didn’t overlook the 2 extra minutes of work it took to use affiliate links. IN FACT, in an instance like this, you can reach out to the brand after the fact and see if they are interested in providing their own affiliate links. Or even better, SPONSORING a future video (we’ll cover that in the next section).
- Be Transparent: The key to long-term success with affiliates is transparency and honesty. Don’t sell something you don’t believe in (and haven’t tried yourself) and always be upfront about your relationship to the brand/company. If you are not and it comes out later, it can damage your credibility even if there is no wrongdoing (amazon links are an exception here).
- Understand your audience: Having a strong understanding of the type of people that watch your videos allows you to pick the products they will find most useful, which means more revenue for you.
- Recommend a variety: Recommend a variety of products based on price range and level of experience. You’ll get more purchases and happier customers.
If you haven’t already, sign up for Amazon’s affiliate program right now (SERIOUSLY. STOP AND DO IT RIGHT NOW). Once, you’ve done that, simply make sure you are using the affiliate links they provide you instead of the normal url (Amazon will show you how when you sign up. It’s easy to find once you’re an affiliate).
Other brands and services will require you to apply to their affiliate program separately. You can typically find a link to sign up for their affiliate program in the footer of their website or just by googling “*company name* affiliate.”
If they do not have a link on their site, but you plan on featuring them in a way that will drive considerable traffic, you should reach out to the company before making the video and try to arrange an affiliate or sponsorship (we’ll get to that next). Include any data you have on your audience size and demographic and provide examples from the past to help give them an idea of how much traffic you will likely drive to their site.
Cost: No upfront cost. Media buyers will take a cut if you choose to use one.
Time: Low — these will take a little more time to negotiate and set-up, but will have higher earning potential than just using affiliate links
Earning potential: Med-high
Great fit for: People making educational content, tutorials, and experts using cutting edge equipment, or for people who strongly represent a certain image or lifestyle
Watch this absolutely perfect example of a sponsored video from Andrew Huang. It seamlessly highlights the features of the equipment and software he is using without needing to interrupt or distract from his video. The videos title also clearly indicates that it is intended to show off his setup, so calling out equipment and the reasons behind it are expected. If anything, the features highlighted probably make the video better: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBADYxGJ5QE
Being able to craft videos like this that do a great job of showing off the specific features of a product is valuable for both your audience and the brand sponsoring the video. It shows off the equipment in it’s natural environment, the way you would if you were showing something to a friend. The better you are at integrating things like this into your video, the more eager brands will be to work with you and they will pay you more. Now if only he told us where he got those pants…
Arden Rose is a vlogger who will frequently share behind the scenes looks with her fans of different areas of her life. This includes clothing and fashion reviews. Naturally, clothing companies are willing to give her free clothes and pay her to share and review her opinions with her fans.
It’s tempting to want to hide the fact that you have been paid to do that, but you should ALWAYS do it, if done in a clear and upfront manner. Watch this example from Arden’s blog where she addresses it upfront, immediately after her introduction (and again in the description): https://youtu.be/c0m6DxXRUtk?t=13s
Sometimes a sponsorship will extend beyond a video and turn into a partnership of sorts. Check out this video, where beauty vlogger Estee LaLonde announces that she is partnering with Lancôme throughout 2017 to bring exclusive behind-the-scenes videos. Her enthusiasm and excitement really shine through as genuine, and she is very open about the nature of the agreement. She makes it clear that Lancôme is a brand that she genuinely likes, uses, and aligns with her values (both in the video and in the description): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMly-LmgLYs
If you have a large enough audience or are strongly trusted or admired on a specific subject, you can partner with a brand to create the exact product you want. Ingrid Nilsen is a lifestyle vlogger who worked with jewelry company, Mejuri, to craft a line that perfectly matched the style and message she wanted.
This added level of involvement lets you have more control over the final product and is even more appealing to your viewer, since they know you had an active role in designing it. Ingrid’s announcement video does a great job of being transparent and sharing the details of partnership, the process, and her vision: https://youtu.be/xoD9mcOJTOw
- **Always negotiate: **When a brand approaches you, it is not uncommon for the first offer MUCH less than what they are actually willing to offer. This is why media buyers are valuable when you reach a certain size. They are like sports agents, specialists that know how to find and strike the best deals for you, so you can focus on your videos. Until then, don’t be afraid to counter with a higher rate. It helps to have a prior example or hard data to support your request.
- Pitch yourself: If you have a smaller niche audience, you may be off of the radar of certain brands, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be interested. Put together some data surrounding your viewership, engagement, and previous traffic you’ve driven, then ask a brand that you love if they’d be interested in sponsoring a video.
- Authenticity: As with affiliates, don’t sell something you don’t believe in (and haven’t tried yourself) and always be upfront about your relationship to the brand/company or it will damage for credibility over time and your viewers won’t trust your future recommendations.
Cost: High upfront cost to buy inventory. Low ongoing costs to maintain the online store.
Time: High upfront to create and order the products, then low-med ongoing time demands
Earning potential: Varies
Great fit for: People with large and/or very engaged audiences, or people that make a physical products as part of their videos (artists, craftsman, jewelry, etc.)
In our creator spotlight with Extra Credits, they revealed that their best new income stream in 2016 was the addition of their merch store, and in particular, this stuffed plushie of their cute animated character named “Game.”
What’s great about it? Well, unlike t-shirts, which require a variety of sizes, or fragile items like mugs, which are a pain to pack and can still break during shipping, these are one size fits all and unbreakable… and really cute.
Fran Meneses, aka Frannerd sells digital prints of her art as well as stickers and zines on her Etsy Store. All of these products are on the easier end of the spectrum when it comes to producing and packaging.
In addition, selling in large online marketplaces like Etsy and Amazon provides another way for people to discover your YouTube videos. This is another reason why books and courses (discussed later) are great monetization strategies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B28MVsw9g3E
Another illustrator, Kendyll Hillegas makes unbelievably realistic portraits of common food items and also has a dedicated audience on YouTube from doing walkthrough tutorials of her creation process.
She sells her art on both Etsy and her own personal site. This way, she can avoid Etsy’s fees on buyers who come from her YouTube channel (and on more expensive items like her originals), but still gets sales organically from Etsy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1iwUGsmUys
- Poll your fans, pre-sale, and start small: One of the biggest mistakes you can make with merch is making something people don’t want and/or ordering too much of it. There are an abundance of tools now that will allow you to poll your fans, run pre-sales, and produce in smaller quantities. Don’t get tempted by the price breaks that come with large quantities until you have proven a demand.
- Keep it simple: Some products come with hidden complexities. T-shirts require 3 or more different sizes. Some items are difficult to package or prone to break. The best merch is simple and low maintenance.
- Understand the ongoing time commitment: Merch gets a bad rap because many people rush into it without considering many of the hidden costs — most important of which is your time. Fulfillment and shipping will eat up more of your time than you think. Plan ahead and look for solutions that will handle this for you and include that in your pricing from day 1. Otherwise, you’ll end up creating a different low-paying job for yourself.
Cost: Low cost investment (medium-high if you consider the opportunity cost of your time)
Time: High up-front time investment, with minimal ongoing time requirements
Earning potential: High
Great fit for: Educators, influencers, thought-leaders, and larger-lifestyle creators
Tim is a YouTube expert and could be used as an example in almost every section of this article, but his largest income source is from his digital product sales: Tim’s utilizes a smart pricing strategy for his digital courses. He offers valuable courses for free as an introduction to his work and as a way to capture email addresses of interested buyers. He then has a few mid-high level courses and a premium course priced at $997.
It’s unlikely that someone would by a $997 course if it is the only course you offer. But Tim demonstrates that he is able to provide real value with his free courses first and people are willing to make the investment in a premium course, because they are confident it will pay for itself and add more than $997 to their YouTube income.
Similarly, Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich makes 98% of his content available for free and even structures a lot of it like courses. When people see how much value they are able to get for free, they aren’t afraid to purchase any of his premium digital courses, because they know if will be well-organized, practical, and easy to follow.
Ramit’s copywriting and sales pages are the best I’ve seen. They are incredibly compelling and well structured. I would recommend studying his sales pages and the techniques he uses when selling his courses. Be forewarned, you’ll probably end up buying something:
- Validate your course or book idea: Sell your course or book before making it. Make your videos and descriptions as if you already have made the course. Pitch it and sell it the same way, and link people to a site to purchase. When they try to purchase, either offer them a pre-sale option, or offer to take down their email address for when it is ready. This is the most accurate way to truly test if you are making the right thing before you sink time into making it. If the response is underwhelming, email the interested parties and let them know that you cancelled the project.
- Start with someone else’s product: If there is already a course or book that you admire, reach out to the author and offer to drive people to that product in exchange for a percent of the revenue of the sales you drive.
- Make a high value, premium product: When you do start to make digital courses, it is good to have a variety of different prices. But make sure you create one high-value, premium product. Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, and other artists/entrepreneurs have revealed that these have been some of their most lucrative return on investments.
Cost: Easy to set up, and potentially time consuming if you are not organized.
Time: Low upfront investment, with med-high ongoing time demands
Earning potential: Med-High
Great fit for: Experts and educators
Crank Lucas first made his name in the rap community doing remakes of industry beats that weren’t yet available. He built his website to cater to 2 types of customers: people looking to download his beats and people looking to hire him as a producer.
This gave him a huge advantage when he started to see a lot of viral success from his comedy skits (which do a great job of showcasing his talents as a writer, rapper, and producer). He already had the infrastructure in place to be able to handle digital purchases and requests for his services and was able to easily expand and adapt to the influx of new requests. Having a business-first mindset allowed him to immediately capitalize on the opportunities that came with increased exposure.
His website is well organized and makes it easy to find what you are looking for. Definitely worth checking out if you are looking to pursue this option:
Adam is an extremely talented film-maker and storyteller who has received a lot of requests via sharing his independent work on YouTube and Vimeo. As he puts it, “these days having your own original work alive and breathing on the web has replaced the showreel as the way potential clients discover you and your work.”
His advice is to look where there is hidden demand that may be underserved:
Start by looking at how you can share your knowledge of your particular craft (video production, storytelling, podcasting, comics etc) – rather than the specific things you make art about. There is a big demand for skills training right now, often from places you don’t expect: more and more businesses, charities and other organisations want to train their staff to produce media in house.
- Differentiate: If you are the same as everybody else, you won’t be worth much. (This doesn’t mean you need to be weird or quirky. Things like quality and reliability are differentiators. Demonstrate them with reviews or testimonials)
- Understand where there is supply and demand: Some markets are over-served and won’t pay much. Look for underserved markets. Film-maker Adam Westbrook found one when he discovered there was big demand for in-house media training for businesses, charities and other organisations.
- Learn to say no: Prickly or overly-demanding clients can be more work than they are worth. Set clear expectations beforehand and don’t be afraid to say no.
- Don’t be afraid to charge a premium: When you have more requests than you have time, you need to be charging more. Experiment with charging much more than you think you can. Many creators have noted being able to make extreme leaps in their rates with little to no effect on demand.
Cost: High upfront cost to buy inventory. Low ongoing costs to maintain the online store.
Time: High upfront to create and order the products, with low-med ongoing time demands
Earning potential: Varies
Great fit for: People with large audiences, very engaged audiences, or people that make a physical products as part of their videos (artists, craftsman, jewelry, etc.)
Ill Gates is an electronic music producer and DJ known for making his own beats and being a prolific teacher. If you are just starting out in electronic music, you will almost certainly come across one of his video lessons, which has naturally lead to many requests for private 1×1 lessons.
He’ll then use a clever strategy to extract even more revenue out of these lessons. With the permission of his clients, he will often record these 1×1 lessons and monetize those by repackaging them as valuable learning materials. He then offers unlimited access to these recorded lessons (as well as access to a lot of other lessons, tools, and support) when you become a VIP member on his site. By using the work he is already doing in 1×1 lessons to easily produce a digital product, he’s essentially turning 1 revenue stream into 2 with little additional work.
Tim is the perfect candidate for consulting services. His YouTube channel is a living testament to his expertise on YouTube. He echoes a sentiment that I hear often with digital courses: don’t be afraid to charge a premium for the value you are providing.
Charging premium rates benefits you in a few ways: you earn more for your time, you filter out customers who are too price sensitive (and tend to be more work than they are worth via complaints and additional demands), and you are perceived as more of an authority and expert on your subject.
But it also has an additional psychological impact on your customers: the perceived value of the training, and their investment in it, is raised.
Tim noted this experience when he offered free or discounted sessions in the past:
They’d take my time to get my suggestions, but they didn’t really do the work after that and thus didn’t get the results they wanted. But when people pay almost $400 for an hour session, they’re invested. They take notes, ask questions, and do everything I say, and feel really good about the money they spent because they actually get results later.
So don’t be afraid of pricing yourself high, because everybody wins when you do. Just make sure you can deliver on your promises.
- Demonstrate your expertise and authority: This monetization strategy only works well for people who are experts or teachers. You should have a considerable amount of educational material already online
- Show potential clients what they would get: Having a portfolio of previous work and clearly documenting the impact of your services is key for clearly demonstrating your services to potential clients. This can be recorded sessions with previous clients, before and after shots of the project you worked on, or data showing how your services affected their metrics. The more clearly you can demonstrate what your services will be like,
- Use testimonials: Testimonials from previous clients are a powerful tool to help conversion.
Cost: No upfront cost. Ongoing 5% fee (if you are using Patreon)
Time: Large upfront time investment, with low ongoing maintenance
Earning potential: Med-High
Great fit for: Creators with medium to large size audiences and/or highly engaged communities
Captain disillusion is a talented video effects producer who makes fun and informative videos, analyzing potential hoax videos, and reverse engineering the effects use to create the illusion. He has different membership tiers on his Patreon page that each peel back another layer of behind the scenes bonus content and additional access. His patrons are spread out fairly evenly amongst these tiers, showing that he crafted these tiers with a very strong understanding of the different depths of access that would appeal to his different types of viewers.
Most creators’ content is the result of a ton of unseen work: rough drafts, sketches, animatics, demo recordings, outtakes. I think we tend to underestimate how much our patrons would value having access to it. Try to see your work through the eyes of your audience and identify aspects that are commonplace to you, but would be fascinating to your fans.
I organize these materials into reward tiers by how interesting I think patrons would find them, factoring in how much effort it takes me to process them into presentable form.
Pictures taken throughout the video-making process go straight into the production blog ($2). Phone videos from the set and funny moments in the raw footage get edited into behind-the-scenes featurettes and bloopers ($5). Files from episodes that feature illustrations and animation get polished and presented as high-resolution production art ($8 because, you know, it’s art!) And almost every video ends up giving me some sort of visual effects challenge. When I manage to make a shot look good and learn something new in the process, I like to pass that knowledge along to patrons interested in visual effects, in the form of in-depth video tutorials ($15)
Below are a few examples of the types of posts he will make. You can see more on his Patreon Page.
Ross Tran makes fun & entertaining tutorial-style videos of him making his truly impressive digital illustrations. His interesting blend of content allows him to utilize many of the different monetization methods mentioned throughout this article.
His Patreon page is an incredible demonstration of clarity and simplicity. He keeps things simple on his page by only offering 3 rewards, which are all explained in a way that is concise and easy to understand. He uses visual aids to quickly and easily convey how it works and what the products you will be receiving will look like. And to top it all off, he also has a 50 second video summary. With only a few moments on his page, it is abundantly clear to any potential patrons exactly what they will get when they pledge.
- Have clear rewards: A common mistake is to try and make each reward tier seem more valuable by packing in as many additional things as possible. In reality, there are probably 1-2 key things that are driving their decision to pledge, and you are making it harder for them to see those.
- Have a clear description: Clearly describe how it will work, what they will be getting, and try to provide answers for anything that isn’t clear. The more you can answer these
- Pick rewards that are sustainable: Pick rewards that your viewers value most, but that aren’t too demanding of your time. People often assume that those willing to become members are so passionate, they will expect more time-consuming premium offers. Often the things they want are the easiest to deliver, and are natural by-products of your work. Additional access and behind the scenes looks showing your creative process. And you don’t worry about dressing it up or presenting it. Gary Vaynuerchuck describes it best in his blog post Document, don’t create.
Cost: Medium upfront cost for legal consultation (not required, but highly recommended)
Earning potential: Med
Great fit for: Lifestyle brands and vloggers
This was another monetization brought to my attention by Tim. In addition to his Video Creators channel, he also maintains a vlog, Schmovies, focused on his family and personal life. Tim told me that he has recently started to get requests to license clips from these videos.
- Negotiate: As with brand deals, initial offers will typically come in much lower than they are willing to pay. From Tim’s experience, they tend to “come in low around a few hundred dollars, but if your clip is good you can usually negotiate for more. The minimum I’ve taken so far is $1,500. The max I’ve gotten is $5,000.”
- Protect yourself legally: Tim also strongly advises to “make sure you go through the contracts and licenses with a lawyer first (I use http://kunklelaw.com personally). They will help you understand not only what rights you’re giving away and what the ramifications of them are, but more importantly they’ll point out what’s NOT written in the contract that should be there.
Investment: Large upfront time investment
Earning potential: High
Great fit for: Any size audience (smaller creators can use it to establish credibility and grow their audience and larger creators can charge more)
Best for educators, Influencers, experts, thought-leaders.
**Pat Flynn (Smart Passive Income):**
Speaking at events and conferences kills two birds with one stone: you get paid for your work AND you get exposed to some of the most passionate fans in your niche (they care so much about the topic they paid to come to an event on it!).
If you are going to take this route, you need to demonstrate well to potential clients that you are a great fit for their conference or event. Pat nails this with an easy to follow landing page that contains everything you’d need to know before hiring him: a demo real, past highlights, upcoming engagements (to show he’s in demand), testimonials, even the topics he already has prepared.
If you want to do more paid speaking, just copy Pat. He does it so well, we don’t need any more examples for this section:
- Have a clearly defined pitch: If you are reaching out to a conference, send them a very clear pitch and outline of what your presentation will look like.
- Make a dedicated page on your site: Let people some to you. Put together your best pitch on your website and link to it from your videos. It also makes it easier to pitch via email: you can keep it short and sweet and link to your site for more information.
- Show, don’t tell: Have a resume of past speaking engagements, use testimonials, and have a demo reel and/or past speeches online.
At the end of the day, most monetization strategies rely on having a deep understanding of your audience and finding ways to provide additional value for them that they are willing to pay for. When you deliver on that promise of additional value, your viewers gain trust in you and trust your future recommendations and offerings.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Look at similar artists to yourself. What are they doing? Can you do something similar? You can even look at artists that are very different than you. Are they doing something smart? Could you tweak that to deliver something that you think your viewers would want as well?
Decide what your top 1 or 2 options are and pursue those. Reinvest those earnings into improving your business and soon you’ll have multiple thriving diverse revenue streams to help build your business even faster.
To become a successful independent creator, it helps to think of yourself like a business. By building up new revenue streams, you better protect yourself from unexpected future changes and can ride out the rough patches when they inevitably come. It means you can’t be held hostage by any one brand, agency, person, or platform. It gives you the option to say “no.” It provides the freedom to keep creating what you want to be creating.
Start building up your revenue streams and start building the future you want for yourself. Then the next time a business or partner you rely on announces some unexpected shift, you can smile knowing that you have options.