If you run an internet discussion forum, you have likely asked yourself how you can make some money back for all the hours you spend setting the forum up, moderating the discussions, perhaps breaking up flame wars, and killing spammer's accounts.
Here are the pros and cons to a series of forum monetization techniques that other forum owners have tried.
Placing banner ads seems like a good idea and it was popular, for a time, years ago. For every niche, there are likely a number of different affiliate programs that can supply banner ads suitable for your forum.
Pros: Banners are easy to drop in with just a little code and the code is usually provided for you so you don't really need to understand the code. It is easy to find a banner ad that works for most niches and you control what is advertised completely because you are deciding which companies to advertise. You may be able to sell banner ads privately to advertisers or you can go with the affiliate programs of your choosing.
Cons: Forum users find banner ads intrusive and often users develop ad blindness. Don't expect a lot of clicks from regular users of your forum. If your site gets inbound search traffic, then you may have a better experience with banner advertising.
Adsense ads can be a problem in a user generate content environment because you need a way to make sure that the Adsense TOS rules are respected or you can lose your Adsense account forever. However, if the forum is on a family friendly topic and the moderators are policing for family friendly and Adsense friendly behavior, this is not a huge concern.
Pros: Adsense is easy to install and offers a huge variety of advertisers all bidding on advertising space on your forum. Google covers all the work of finding the advertisers based on the topics discussed in your forum, billing them, collecting, and sending you your 68% share of what the advertisers pay.
Users will be exposed to different ads from many advertisers over time, including Rich Media ads, which may be better than fixed banner ads for click through.
Cons: Adsense Ads are often text and can clutter up an already text heavy busy forum. Outside of some filtering tools within the Adsense interface, you don't really control what the ads are about. If your forum users wander off topic or use a lot of abbreviations Google may have trouble serving targeted ads. Many forum users will develop ad blindness and ignore the ads. Users not used to ads may not like the ads and revolt.
Using Chitika Ads creates similar issues to using Google Adsense ads, though there are a few other issues to consider. An advantage in dealing with regulars who dislike ads, you can set Chitika ads to only display to incoming search traffic, making the ads invisible to the logged in users. A huge disadvantage is that the range of advertisers and value of clicks is lower with Chitika in many verticals and topics than with Adsense.
Some forum owners really like the membership model because it provides good recurring income. A low membership fee keeps out the casual passer through but encourages committed members of the forum to participate to get their money's worth.
Charging a membership fee may be easier in a club or organization that includes off line activities too. In other words there is something to be part of that has value, and the forum is just a component of what the group offers. An online group can also be fee based, with dating sites a prime example. A forum open to members only on a paid dating site can be a nice feature for members, but not the main reason they pay the fee (rather the ability to post and view profiles is the main motivation).
Another related option is to make a close area of the public forum into a members only area. Members will like the prestige of being in the "closed" club and may be willing to pay for the privileges that membership entails.
Pros: If you can reliably provide really good value through education or some other desirable service (like a matchmaking site), charging for forum membership might work.
Cons: Many users will not want to pay. New potential users that don't understand or fully value the benefits are unlikely to join the forum. This will really cut down the number or users.
Some members may be interested in making a donation to cover expenses.
Pros: Completely voluntary
Cons: May require begging and that is not much fun. Not likely to do more than cover expenses.
You can insert affiliate links in your own posts and your signature. You might also add links to an FAQ or other resources on the site.
Pros: Subtile and they pay
Cons: Time consuming for maybe no reward
Installing a snippet of code automatically turns all links into affiliate links on your forum, including user posted content. So when someone posts a link to eBay and someone else follows it you make money. Same with links and references to Amazon, Adobe and thousands of other sites.
Pros: Beyond the money $$$ there are a bunch of Pros. The links take up no on page real estate and don't slow load time. User experience is exactly the same as before. Most users will not even notice the installation unless you also allow Viglink to insert links whenever a linkable site is mentioned. For example if someone says Amazon the system will insert a link to Amazon on that word like that.
Installing the code is fast and painless and only requires a one time setup. After that it is set and forget until the cash rolls in.
Cons: If you are worried about flowing PR the extra links can leak a little link juice.
In my view this is by far the best way to make money off a forum.