The Missing Step in Giving Advice

“Don’t monetize with ads,” he said. “Everybody hates ads. Do affiliate marketing instead! Recommend useful products to your audience, and you’ll do just fine.”

The blogger whose advice I was reading ran a very successful blog. It looked super clean. It got hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. And it made multiple five figures every month.

Running a similar, though not as successful website, I thought I might learn a thing or two, but for some reason, I couldn’t wrap my head around the advice. “I tried all this. So why isn’t it working?”

After some reflection, I realized: The guy missed a step in handing out recommendations. He forgot to take off his glasses, and, as a result, it was your typical, one-size-fits-all kind of advice — and for me, despite running a similar business, it already didn’t fit.

As it happens, he mostly covered finance, an industry in which affiliate payouts are extremely high. Finance companies pay a lot of money for referrals because if even just one out of 1,000 leads invests $10,000 into their product or service, that’s still a great deal for them. Meanwhile, in terms of eroding trust, ads might do more damage on a finance website than any other.

My site, on the other hand, offers free book summaries. We get traffic from all over the world, but a lot of people are students, young professionals, and from lower-income countries. For the first four years or so, we did have affiliate links on every page — yet we only made around $200 per month from hundreds of thousands of visitors. At the same time, ever since we introduced them, ads have done great!

If you have a big audience that doesn’t like to spend money, ads allow you to monetize each visitor, even if only few click the ads. Affiliate links only work when you make a sale, and if not enough people are willing to buy, you can plaster as many links on your site as you want — you won’t make a dime.

Most people give advice in two steps:

  1. “These are the steps I took, and they worked for me.”
  2. “You should take these same steps.”

This framework glosses over the fact that just one little variable change might render the whole template moot. What these people are missing is a crucial second step. Here’s how we should actually give advice:

  1. “These are the steps I took, and they worked for me.”
  2. “This is the situation I was in before I took those steps, and these are some of the reasons why I think those steps worked for me at that time.”
  3. “If you’re in the same situation I was in and want the same outcome, you should try to take these same steps.”

What works for a finance website will be very different from what works for a book summary blog. What works in 2009 is unlikely to work in 2018. And what works for a white woman in her 30s might not be of use to a Black man of 54.

It’s great to share your wisdom. You’ve worked hard for it, and a lot of us will benefit. Just try to give us the full picture instead of a flattened, 2D-version of your story. It’s not just more fun; it’ll also be more helpful — and, graciously, if affiliate marketing doesn’t work for us, it gives us permission to turn on the ads.