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Monetizing a forum site

Low eCPM we know, but not a lost cause

5:42 am on Jul 19, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I've been working hard over the past four months trying to maximize the ad revenue from my 8-year old sports/recreation oriented forum site that runs on a BBS of my own construction. My site has great organic PR in all the major SE's and logs about 150K page impressions and 33K sessions per month. But getting cash out has been challenging to say the least. Since there are few forums that compete with mine, I'm here to share my best practices in hopes that others will do the same.

I've been selling graphic banners direct to small businesses in my niche for the last 4-5 years, first 468x60 across the top, and later/currently 150x600 wide skyscrapers running down the left margin of each forum's posts. I sell these banners for between $20 and $50 per month, mostly to vendors who actively participate in my forums. I get $100/month for my home page slots (2), and I offer sizable discounts for longer ad runs up to 12-months.

After leveling out on banner ad sales, I turned to PPC programs and tried *many* until discovering that, for my forum at least, AdSense was head and shoulders above the rest. More on AdSense below.

I tried Amazon single-product ads and got a few conversions, but it took a lot of work to keep the ads fresh (people stopped clicking on the same ads after about a week), and the commission was low compared to AdSense. I canned the Amazon ads after about a month, and well before reaching the $25 level to get paid. :(

The remainder of this post will focus on my AdSense tuning.

Since I had previously carved out a left margin for my own ads, publishing AdSense 160x600 wide skyscrapers took little effort. I decided not to trump my existing banner advertisers' ads with AdSense ads so I programmed the rotation to place the AdSense ads below my last paid advertisers' ad. Thus far there have been zero complaints from incumbent direct advertisers.

But the AS wide skies weren't performing all that well, producing page CTR's less than 1% and earning only a couple of bux a day. I followed advice posted here on WW and started playing with colors and the like, finally settling on an AdSense supplied 4-theme rotation using the two forum colors on my site and their inverse. This perked things up a bit and I occasionally saw a fin per day.

Following more WW wisdom, I delved into links units, publishing a 120x90 link unit block in the top-right of every page on my site, borderless and colored to match the site. These unassuming ads did remarkably well, sometimes outperforming the wide skys, sometimes not. But payout wise, I was still unable to afford lunch each day.

Next I tried the new 468x15 link units, placed just beneath the text of the most recent post in each forum. I was initially worried about member push-back but none materialized. But for whatever reason, G wasn't serving many ads to this space, and I'd sometimes see only one or two ads in the link unit, even after I discontinued the 120x90 above. And too many times, G would serve no ads at all into this space which caused it to perform poorly.

Since my forum pages are quite tall, I next tried 2, 3, and even 4 wide skys per page, all stacked up in the left margin. G didn't like serving me 4 or even 3 wide skys per page (blank spaces would appear instead of ads) so I reverted to 2 per page and got a small bump in revenue.

My current and best results have come from placing a good old-fashioned 468x60 borderless banner just below the text of the most recent post. The ad is colored to match the font and bg colors in the post. To get G to serve this ad consistently I had to kill the link units at top-right, but the results have been very encouraging, and now, combined with the single wide sky per page, I'm knocking on sawbuck territory!

"Would you like soup with your lunch today, sir?"

"Why yes, I think I would!"

3:06 pm on Jul 19, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I can't take credit for the idea, I think it was Trillianjedi who made the post I based my sceme on, but the improvement for me came in not showing the ads to registered forum users as often.

My current templates are set to show ads every time to guests (I get substantial SE referrals), and a 1 in 7 chance of an ad impression for registered users. I use a leaderboard centered above the posts/topics table on my post and topics pages respectively. I never show ads at the forum index or on obvious untargetable pages (who's online, etc.) I belnd my ads to the color sceme of the forum.

As far as how well it works, I can only say it seems to work better than continuously showing everybody ads. My CTR is lower than on content pages, but still good enough that I'm keeping the plan as is. FWIW, I think a 1% CTR on forums would thrill a lot of webmasters.

I think it works in another way as well--the additional imps that I am avoiding would otherwise drop my account-wide CTR. I am convinced there are certain CTR "breakpoints" that dictate (at least influence) what quality of ads you receive. In other words, I'm a lot happier when I keep my CTR above X%. Removing non-performing pages has helped, as has selective display of adsense units as described above. Your mileage may vary.

5:13 pm on Jul 19, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Try plotting your eCPM against exposures. You may find that there's a threshold where your incremental revenue for giving Adsense (or any other PPC advertiser) starts to drop materially. If you find this condition exists, either cut back the exposures as linear suggests or serve different ads instead of Adsense.
8:44 pm on Jul 19, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

It's a real hair fire to constuct a rigorous controlled experiment involving adsense. I'd think the only way to do it would be to set up two channels, then show channel A to half your visitors (maybe use the last octet of the IP address modulo 2?) at frequency F1 while you show channel B ad units that are otherwise identical at frequency F2. If you do it consecutively, changes in the ad mix over time can foul your results up.
3:14 pm on Jul 20, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Quite true, linear. Day to day variations make it tough to compare different approaches. To the extent you can do a split-run test, that's probably the ideal. Of course, since it the test has to do with ad frequency rather than ad design, you'd probably have to make the split cookie-based so that each visitor always stayed in the same group for the duration of the test.
2:20 pm on Jul 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

my forums are quite new but my plan is to develop a nice, self-sustaining community and then harness the collective creative writing ability of the members to generate content for other areas of the site - i.e. inviting article submissions, etc

for me, that's where the real cash is available - ads on content pages, not topic pages

2:54 am on Jul 25, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

The modern equivalent of the proverbial thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters. ;)
8:00 pm on Jul 25, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Just a quick update, my site's average AS rev was $5.66 from July 17, 2005 - July 24, 2005 (with the in-post ads), and was $3.37 from July 9, 2005 - July 16, 2005 (before the in-post ads).

The downside is that I'm receiving complaints from members about the new in-post ads. Less sophistacted users gripe "How did that ad get in my post?! I didn't put it there!". More sophisticated users gripe about the sometimes off-topic content of the ads.

3:36 pm on Jul 27, 2005 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

The modern equivalent of the proverbial thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters. ;)

well, not really; for starters, the members read many websites and forums which i don't - hence they will hear about breaking news (e.g. about a particular band from that band's forums) up to a day or two before i do. If I invite news article submissions - very short pieces similar in length to a thought-through post on a forum, and I review, edit and then approve these articles, my site is constantly refreshing its news content and is staying very much at the forefront of the neighbourhood (and therefore more likely to be linked to, by people who read the news then post about it elsewhere)

From time to time a member might write a particularly long and interesting post; a PM and a promise of the glory of being mentioned on the front page would be all the stimulus that's needed for that member to go back to his post and turn it into a fully fledged article, reading for putting on a new content page on the site, listing him as the author. This could tie in to a member reputation point scheme perhaps (though i find those a bit lame)

Finally, if ever I feel like writing an article myself, starting a topic in the forums will allow to judge the general feeling amongst readers of the site regarding that issue, as well as potentially throwing up a lot of relevant information and knowledge, without me having to go look it up.

A good admin is well connected to the community and posts a lot - using the community to generate new, original and opinionated content is just taking that connection to a new level, and getting something out of it. Because I don't feel that banner ads on a forum are an effective revenue source.

There are lots of other ways of monetising a forum, involving sponsorships and so on - but for banner ads, i'd rather keep my forum fairly free of low paying, never-clicked ads; putting a content site around the forums, with the content being created in the forums, and putting AdSense on those pages, will be a much more worthwhile pastime (I hope!)

At the moment my forum isn't large enough to do this on a significant scale, so these are untested ramblings from a young entrepreneur :D

3:40 pm on Jul 27, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Just a tip from my experience, the new adsense adlinks are a great option for forums. When inserted after the first post, for example, they are very unobtrusive and draw few complaints. I only wish you could run more than one on a page.


1:28 pm on Aug 8, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I find that adsense under the 1st post seems to work well, and I have it turned off for registered users.

The reason is that registered users are unlikely to click the ads, and are notching up impressions which lower the CTR of the ads.
Guest users, however, are usually either search engine/link driven traffic (who may well click an ad) or members who haven't logged in yet (less likely).

Still, seems to work fairly OK for me - CTR is around 1% and some days the money is fairly respectable. Certainly over a month it covers the hosting costs - which is fine by me.

2:47 am on Aug 10, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

for those that are turning off ads for registered users, what software are you all using for the forum?
10:51 am on Sep 12, 2005 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

you should be able to use simple <if> <else> HTML logic, most forums already do in order to show a login box to guests and a link to your control panel once you're logged in
9:53 am on Oct 2, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Interesting thread. I used a skyscraper on my forum on the right side for ages.

I just recently moved the ad into the thread instead, a leaderboard between navigation bar and the first post and one more leaderboard at the end of the thread.

My CTR jumped from 0.1% to 0.5% and I am happy with that improvement.

1:03 pm on Oct 30, 2005 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

i run a forum about rock music, and my approach to increasing the eCPM of my page has been to use PHPAdsNew to rotate google adsense with tidbits of music trivia - so that banner blindness is combatted since a new interesting fact is shown every time the page loads. I'm experimenting with different ratios of adsense impressions : trivia impressions, but 1:6 seems to be pretty effective.

It doesn't have to be trivia. Graphics, jokes, tips on how to use features on the forums - use your imagination. Just use something that's gonna make people look there the next time the page is loaded!

1:25 pm on Oct 30, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Another way to monetize your forum is "Bargaining for community using community". What does that mean? Let me explain.

Say you have a music community and mostly based in US or UK(may be some other regions too). What do they buy? Say they buy guitars. Approach a good company which operates in the areas where you have good community members, bargain for your community. $x priced guitar can be available to your community members for $x-$25 and you will get $10 commission through coupon systems. You do this for each need of your community (guitars, latest albums, musical groups ..).

The bigger your community the bigger bargaining power you have

This has two advantages.
1) You are helping your community get some discounts through memberships which will lead more and more people to join your forum. It is becoming productive to your members and you check the quality service for them.

2) Guitar company is saving some money on their ads and is getting bulk sales.

In long term this will help you establish as an authority in your niche market.

6:07 pm on Nov 2, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

I like your idea of alternating content and ads, bradley phil. Forums have low click rates, and that is certainly one way to keep people from tuning out the space completely.
5:59 am on Nov 22, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Just an update on this topic, following AdSense's Smart Pricing and Chitika's crusade against Curiosity Clicks, my earnings have all but dried up.. to the point that it's more of a nuisance to my members than the meager returns justify.
1:07 am on Nov 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

I've seen big fluctuations in forum earnings. Up, down, up, down... Stick with it, and try some alternate networks like YPN.
1:40 am on Nov 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

I like your idea of alternating content and ads, bradley phil.

I don't think any new forum should use this, this is again forcefully making them read, isn't it?

Once you are established and are providing something worth then you can play with it. IMO

10:49 am on Nov 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

what if yoo were to eliminate all advertising and have a little spill about going to the ad free format so that your site will be pure, unbiased and for-the-people

what if you charged a dollar a month billed annually for posting rights / members or maybe 2 a month if they want a tshirt with your url on it

what if 20% of your members bought into the idea, where would that stack up aganist your current revenue

what if

3:13 pm on Nov 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

I don't think any new forum should use this, this is again forcefully making them read, isn't it?
Not at all. Where the adsense banner is on your site (e.g. in a page header/board footer/whatever), you don't always show the ads; you can show trivia related to the topic of your board (i have rock music trivia) or advice on how to use the board's features, or banners for other advertisers.
5:19 pm on Nov 29, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

>>I don't think any new forum should use this, this is again forcefully making them read, isn't it?

People will still largely ignore the ads, but you are fighting "banner blindness" a bit.

I do think that new forums should skip the ads altogether - the tiny revenue from a low-volume forum isn't worth the clutter when you are desperate to attract new members and keep old ones. (A highly relevant sponsor ad would be different; that might even add credibility to a new community. Seeing random VoIP and credit card ads would be a small turnoff, IMO.)

6:38 am on Dec 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Running YPN on my site for the past 4 days.. earned enough on the first day for a decent dinner for two! Promising, but it's too early to tell if it will be an ongoing benefit.
6:45 am on Dec 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

My current templates are set to show ads every time to guests (I get substantial SE referrals), and a 1 in 7 chance of an ad impression for registered users.

I would love to know how to implement this...


11:24 am on Dec 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Your forum software probably has conditional logic built in, e.g., it tests for a logged in user and displays different content depending on status. (An unlogged-in user may get a login box, for example, while a logged-in user may get a "welcome" message and a private message count.)

You could use this logic in conjunction with ad rotation software - call a different ad group. The visitor ad group gets all ads - the member ad group gets ads and blank graphics. Most ad rotators let you set the frequency of each ad.

Or, you could build some simple logic into your code. I just did this in a forum where I needed to synchronize two ads on the same page and the ad rotation software alone couldn't handle it. I used a random number function and a conditional to create a simple probability distribution, and set the page code to request particular ad groups based on the final number.

5:51 pm on Dec 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

The logic I'm using also tests the type of page, and shows ads only on pages with targetable content.

As pseudocode:
IF ( (this is a topic page) OR (this is a board index) )
AND ( (this is a guest) OR (rand(0,6) == 0) )
THEN (show an ad)

Every board will have a different spin on precisely how the expressions in parentheses appear. rand() is a PHP function.

8:14 pm on Dec 9, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

thanks for the answers,

i use invisionboard, anyone here that has done this, with invision? and can i make a distinction between usergroups?

I basically want one usergroup to not see ads at all, but the rest should see them...

thanks and cheers

8:28 am on Dec 12, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

I have used invision, phpbb and few more forums, try and make your own classes to get these things done. Keep your invision code as clean as possible.

I personally liked phpbb as it is simpler and better organized code.

that was my opinion.

8:32 am on Dec 22, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I have just coded routines in my forum site to show YPN ads on even numbered dates, Adsense ads on odd numbered dates. I'll report back when some stats have come in.

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