As I get ready to take two months completely off work, and as I get increasingly fatigued while doing basic tasks like walking to the store, I’m thinking a lot about passive income and how to make more of it.
Passive income, as I’ve written about it in the past, is an income stream that continues to generate money even when you’re not working. For me, nothing can compare to the feeling of waking up and realizing I’ve made $50 while I was sleeping.
What passive income does not mean, however, is “income stream that you set and forget.” Especially this year, I’ve realized that several of the ways I make money need an update.
Can you still make money niche blogging?
Here’s a four-part series I wrote in 2016 about setting up a profitable niche blog. While I still agree with most of this advice, I’m aware that on this blog, at least, my earnings have plateaued. Why? Because I don’t update as much and that penalizes me in searches (Google prefers sites that update at least once every 30 days). So this blog isn’t truly generating “passive” income.
In 2019, this blog has made $61.41. Well, not counting my books, which made an additional $25.92. The point is, that’s $17.44 a month in income, which is barely a dinner order. (Or maybe it is near you, DC prices are ridiculous.)
I could do things to make Otaku Journalist earn more. I could place more affiliate links, use ads on every page, nevermind that my ads are performing 50% worse than they did in 2018 thanks to the mass adoption of ad blockers—which I don’t fault, I use those too!
More importantly, I could blog more often, centering my posts on valuable SEO keywords. For a more passive version of this, I could go back in my archives, view the current 20 most popular Otaku Journalist posts, and load them with new keywords and affiliate links.
But here’s the real best use of my time: focusing on more niche blogs.
The “late-stage buy cycle”
Otaku Journalist is a grab-bag of posts about my freelance life, geek careers, and anime and fandom topics. It doesn’t usually target readers who are looking to make a purchase. If you still want to make money blogging in 2019, you need to focus on people in the late-stage buy cycle.
No, this has nothing to do with late-stage capitalism. (Well, maybe adjacently?) Basically, you want to write to a very specific audience of people: not those who are thinking, “Should I buy an anime character body pillow?” but those who are wondering, “Where can I see a comparison of different anime character body pillows before I choose one to buy?” We are talking about people who have already decided to buy, so there’s no sales pitch involved anymore. All you need to do is research the products for them and ease that purchase process along. So if you’re focused solely on passive income, instead of writing posts about how fandom has improved your life, you can write posts listing the ten best anime of 1999 and where to get them. This is why Anime Origin Stories is my least profitable blog (well that, and its low recency score.)
This is a lot more transactional and a lot less fun than the kind of blogging most people like to do. It’s informative in a very specific window for a specific group, and not the kind of thing that is particularly shareable. So yes, you can still make money blogging, and perhaps even a fairly good living, but not while blogging about the things that matter most to you.
Of course, this is assuming corporations don’t screw you first.
The danger of relying on corporations
My niche blogs rely on Amazon’s affiliate program. In the past, Amazon has made several changes to make this program less profitable for affiliates—for example, the commission structure, which used to increase the percentage you earned depending on how many products you recommended to buyers, is now set flat depending on the department. This is good or bad depending on your department: it hurts my Gunpla blog (Toys, 3% commission) but boosts my candle blog (Home, 8%).
Amazon has all the power, and it has no responsibility to me or anyone else to keep its commission structure profitable. Even if the company doesn’t decide to eventually shut down the program altogether, there are other reasons I could lose this income stream. For example, Google may kill the affiliate link economy by superimposing its new shopper recommendation algorithm, promoting its own affiliate program above Amazon’s.
This is the deal with the devil that many online earners face. If you’re a YouTube vlogger, you have to contend with YouTube’s pro-harassment policies and the mercurial algorithm which no longer treats corporate and indie content creators equally. If you’re a Patreon user, you have to roll with the whims of the company’s ever-greedier shareholders. Even if you use PayPal for transactions, you have to be aware of the company’s Puritan morals, which have it freezing the accounts of not only adult content creators but weirdly, ASMR video makers, too.
Of course, there’s still one passive income stream that bypasses most of these issues.
Products and services still come out on top
The people who are really making bank online aren’t making content to promote corporations. They’re making products and services people can use.
I know this. I’ve written a couple of books, and I even wrote a guide to creating your own profitable side income by building a product or service. The problem is that this is the passive income stream with the most work up front and the most risk—so I find it the most intimidating. How do you know if your product or service is something people want? How do you tell people you have it for sale when you’re just starting out? This is why it’s so vital to create a minimum viable product until you know you’ve landed on something people are demanding, so you don’t waste your time putting a lot of effort into something that won’t be profitable. But each time I’ve let this kind of thing slow me down from releasing a product or service, my biggest regret has been not doing it sooner. A lot of the anxiety was all in my head.
Products and services can never truly be passive. My book sales waned after a couple of years, so I either need to update them to get with the times and re-release, or write new books that resonate better with 2019. Meanwhile. any service I provide, like generating niche SEO keywords for a select group of clients, will always involve active work from me (so really, the “passive” part comes from not having to look for clients, who usually just seek me out). And I still rely on big companies—Amazon Kindle for books, and Quickbooks Self Employed (owned by TurboTax the Terrible) for invoicing—so it’s not perfect.
Products and services are currently my most recommended suggestion for your next online income component, but I’m certain there are revenue streams out there I haven’t heard about yet. Just like early adopters of the Amazon Affiliate program made bank I couldn’t conceive of today, there’s always going to be a better way to earn online that risk-takers will find and capitalize on first. As my good friend Kyle said, “If I knew the next big way to make money online, I wouldn’t be talking to you about it, I’d be doing it.” It’s up to you to find it.