In 2013, I wrote “How To Be Man” for Business Insider, which went relatively viral, with over 3.5 million views. I followed it with a popular Holiday Gift Guide — a cynical, better-curated take on the famous Neiman Marcus fantasy gift guide. In the process, I made $0.
Because of the success of my articles, plenty of outlets wanted me to write for them — CNBC, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, The Blaze, etc.
Even though most of these offers were unpaid, it was important for me (at the time) to boost my profile, footprint, and credentials ahead of my book coming out. Still, it didn’t seem right that I was giving them millions of clicks for free. So I decided to figure out a way to monetize it.
By 2016, my Business Insider Holiday gift guide was generating millions of views, and made me more than $80,000 and counting — not bad for a single article! And I’ve been generating six figures of passive income every year ever since, without much effort.
Here’s how I did it:
Wake up to the power of affiliate links
My book — a memoir about pervasive deviance and corruption on Wall Street— came out in 2015, and debuted at #7 on the New York Times bestseller’s list. Because of my social media footprint (@GSElevator), I played an impactful role in driving sales.
I had two experienced agents and a publicist guiding me through the publishing process, and yet, none of them ever bothered to tell me about the Amazon affiliate program — which pays a commission on everything people purchase from an affiliate link.
In succinct terms, that means that if you click here, I’ll get ~6% commission on everything you buy in the next 24 hours. Try it, I’ll wait.
Sadly, I had spent an entire year promoting my book on social media and writing articles without using affiliate links, and probably missed out on at least $100,000 in the process. It was an expensive lesson.
Still, it amazes me how many authors and journalists I see plugging and promoting books without affiliate links, or worse, unknowingly using their publisher’s links. Bob Woodward’s “Fear” has shattered every publishing record this year. And who’s getting the affiliate revenue from his own website and posts? Simon & Schuster!
Neil deGrasse Tyson smartly uses affiliate links to capture the revenue for himself; he even embeds them on the Hayden Planetarium website. Unsurprisingly, people like Ann Coulter and Jordan Peterson are also very effective at using affiliate links online and across social media. But many prolific authors don’t! The social media savvy Rachel Hollis, author of the runaway bestseller, “Girl, Wash Your Face,” doesn’t bother capturing any affiliate revenue at all— causing her to lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sure, most of these people are famously wealthy, don’t need the money, and are too busy to think about additional revenue streams. But, that’s not the point. If you buy Michelle Obama’s new book on Amazon via an affiliate link and also pick up (for example) some Kate Spade perfume ($96), Random House will make an extra $8 from this single transaction, along with a piece of anything else in your cart.
So while you probably can’t sell books like Michelle Obama, Kevin Kwan, Mark Manson, or Bob Woodward, you can still generate significant passive revenue with well-placed links promoting your books, reading lists, or even just books you like.
Come up with a relevant premise
A couple of years ago, I read an article about how Amazon Prime was wreaking havoc on college mailrooms. At the same time, I saw that Amazon was increasingly focused on textbooks in an attempt to disrupt the college book store and overall dorm room economy.
So I wrote “15 Must Read Books if You Want to Work on Wall Street,” specifically targeting the college students among my finance-leaning audience. I followed it up with a piece of evergreen content, that again was targeting college students: “How To Get a Job on Wall Street.” I published it right in the middle of back-to-school season.
All of a sudden, I was getting fat commissions on books, textbooks, back to school supplies, and more important, everything else a college student needs to kit out their dorm room from Amazon.
I’ll typically re-circulate or update these articles every September and share in places where I think I can get the most student clicks, while making sure not to spam the rest of my audience.
Evergreen is king
This is fairly intuitive, but evergreen is king! I say this because I’m too lazy, and have better things to do than try to write prolifically. Also, I’m not a writer.
Instead, I focus on ideas and concepts that stay relevant and appear easily in commonly-used search preferences:
- How to Dress Like A Man
- The 21 Rules of Bar Etiquette
- The Perfect New Year’s Resolutions
- The Only Christmas Gift Guide You’ll Ever Need
- How To Be A Man
- How To Get a Job on Wall Street
After “How To Be A Man” went viral, I assumed the article would essentially expire after a month, at just over 1.5 million total views. However, five years later, it’s currently approaching 4 million views. My Business Insider gift guides and fashion guides are also great examples of this, and continue to pay my $2–3k in commissions every month in perpetuity.
The key is to keep planting seeds. My most recent article, “How To Dress Like a Man”, was published on August 26, 2018. So far, it’s racked up 250,000 views and generated more than $25,000 in cash for me (in less than three weeks). It’ll continue to send me money for years to come.
Name-drop. Name-drop. Name-drop
This has been a popular and effective article premise for journalists looking for clicks. My favorite example is probably along the lines of, “The 50 Best Finance Accounts on Twitter.” It’s nothing more than a journalist’s hope that 50 narcissists with decent social media footprints will be retweeting and sharing the article, giving them easy clicks.
That’s why I wrote “15 Books To Read if You Want To Work on Wall Street” as an intentionally eclectic list. Not only did many of the (influential) authors thank me for promoting them, they also tweeted and shared my article to their respective networks — boosting my footprint, validating my credibility, and paying me cash… simply for doing something that, on the surface, was selfless and sincere.
Promote, support, and share
From Michael Knowles to Josh Brown, I see many influencers actively “supporting” other authors by recommending their books on social media. I have no reason to question their sincerity, but I also happen to notice that they do it using their own affiliate links.
Recommend a book. Share a summer reading list. Promote a product you love.
If you’re sincere and credible, your audience doesn’t care that it’s shilling. And chances are, the person you are promoting will appreciate it, and possibly share your link. I’ve had many examples of this, but most recently, I tweeted a sincere plug for Greg Gutfeld’s new book, and he retweeted it to his one million followers.
Partner with smaller brands
For my annual holiday gift guide, I get plenty of big companies trying to bribe me to feature their products. Most of the time, I say no… because, while I care about money, I still care about my credibility more.
Instead, I like to find smaller brands that I genuinely like, and then work with them to support them and help them grow:
- They are easier to work with
- They are more approachable and receptive to a collaboration
- They are exceptionally appreciative, and will support you back
- The results are more measurable (and easier to monetize)
- You can demand cash upfront, a royalty, and equity
I started working with Birddogs (the best gym shorts on the planet) in 2015 when their sales were at $300,000, and have done a few collaborations with them. This year, they’ll hit $16 million in revenue.
Again, you don’t even have to “sell out” with paid ads; just connect with brands that you think your audience will appreciate. Even though I made a lot of money with Birddogs, I still get many people thanking me for introducing them to the brand.
And these smaller companies will support you back! I featured a product in an article, not because I was being paid, but because I sincerely loved it. The company was so appreciative of the feature, and the big boost to their revenue that they spent more than $10,000 over the next six months promoting my article on Facebook — driving an insane amount of Amazon affiliate dollars my way.
Get some skin in the game
The problem with one of my first royalty deals — a fixed-dollar royalty applied to all sales above a leading 60-day average and expiring 30 days after content publication— was that my article was evergreen. So the company I promoted has been benefiting from millions of clicks for free.
If you really believe in something, and think you can help a company grow, get some equity! When I started working with Birddogs in 2015, they were valued at less than $1 million. Three years later, it’s a $40 million company.
I got paid to promote socks and undershirts in a fashion article I wrote in 2016. Last year, I started my own company. Now, we’re on track to do $2 million in revenue this year alone. Everything is automated from factory to fulfillment so I have no employees and no overhead other than inventory. And it’s largely subscription based. That’s passive income, baby!
John LeFevre is the creator of @GSElevator on Twitter, soon a podcast host, and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Straight To Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, And Billion-Dollar Deals, currently in development as a major motion picture.