6 Profitable Income Stream Ideas for Online Businesses

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I usually get a confused look when I tell someone I have an online business.

They have no idea what I mean. They often think that it means I make stuff and sell it on Etsy for a nice bit of pocket money.

Or, even worse, they think I’m about to start a cringey multi-level marketing spiel and try to bully them into buying something they don’t need OR want.

Earning a great income from digital products is something that most people just don’t understand.

And if you’ve thought of starting an online business, your knowledge of the options might be just as limited.

Luckily, there are fantastic ways of making money online that are ethical AND enjoyable.

So here’s my online income stream ideas cheat sheet for you.

These are all the ways I recommend making money online.

All lead to some form of passive income, meaning you can make a great income from fewer hours.

Most take your knowledge and turn it into a digital product that you can create on a laptop and continue to sell for many years – meaning they can be very lucrative.

After all, if you sew something and sell it, you’re back to square one. You have to sew ANOTHER something to make more money…and so on, and on, and on.

But if you create a digital product once you can sell it hundreds, or thousands, or even tens of thousands of times. 

You can take each of these income stream ideas and adapt it to pretty much any topic or audience. There’s definitely something here to suit you and your business, and you’re guaranteed to have some great ideas while going through this list.

OK, let’s go.

Online Courses

Online courses are one of my favourite digital products.

You take your knowledge and experience and package it up into a course with a defined result for your customers.

It can be as small as a mini-course that someone can finish in 30 minutes, or a huge, comprehensive course that teaches something from start to finish.

Examples

  • My free Business Ideas Blitz mini-course
  • Puppy training for new dog owners
  • How to start investing in shares
  • How to build a tiny house
  • Budget world travel for families
  • Writing a resume and cover letter that will get you your dream job

Positives of online courses

They’re relatively passive. Once you’ve created your course you just need to update it regularly. You can put plenty of time into marketing, or adding great bonuses, or creating more courses and products.

The sky’s the limit on pricing. Online courses can cost as little as $9 for a tiny, quick course, but it’s common for courses to cost $1000 or more. Of course, you won’t be able to start with premium pricing – it’s for courses that are tried and tested, have impeccable delivery, and great videos/downloads/bonuses. But you can start cheaper, test/refine/improve, and aim for premium pricing in the future.

They’re a great core. Once you’ve created your course you have time to add on whatever you like. Live coaching, coworking sessions, printable bonuses, a community – these all make your course more valuable.

Negatives of online courses

They take a relatively long time to set up. To create a successful online course you need to put a fair bit of time and effort into research, writing, and production. Most contain multiple forms of content (written, video, audio) and relevant additions (like a printable planner, spreadsheet time tracker). You’ll probably need to do a test run, and tweak the content a few times before you get it just right. But you can offset this somewhat by starting with a mini course or a paid workshop and expanding it over time.

They require a bit more tech input. You need somewhere private to host your course content that allows customers to access it. There are plenty of platforms available (I recommend Podia if you’re non-techy) but they will cost you ongoing fees, and can be expensive.

Online courses are great for you if…

You love teaching, can break information down into achievable chunks, and can present it in a clear and engaging way.

Digital downloads

This is any product that someone can purchase, download instantly, and use for a specific purpose.

Some examples are –

  • Printables
  • Planners
  • Journals
  • Stock photos
  • Templates
  • Spreadsheets
  • Ebooks
  • Workbooks
  • Patterns

Examples

  • Crochet baby booties pattern ebook
  • Notion dashboard for university students
  • Homeschool planner + journal
  • Garden journal with planting calendar and moon phases
  • Weekly meal plans with shopping lists
  • Branding packs for new businesses
  • Wedding budget spreadsheet

Positives of Digital Downloads

Quick to create. When you’ve got a good workflow established you can produce a new idea or special request very quickly. 

You can build LOTS of content. If you create regularly, you can use your digital downloads as the base for a membership or subscription product. Sending out a meal plan or copywriting template each week, with a content library of all past resources, enables you to turn your one-off sale into an ongoing source of income.

Negatives of Digital Downloads

They require great design skills. Sure, Canva has great templates, but the people who tend to be very successful use programs like InDesign to make more professional designs. If someone can DIY in Canva (or it looks like it was DIYed in Canva) it probably won’t sell.

They’re typically low price. Some people can sell with enough volume that digital downloads are their only product, but many don’t. For this reason they can be better as lead magnets or introductory products, to introduce people to your higher priced products.

You can end up with an overwhelming catalogue. Managing hundreds of separate $4 products and their related tech problems and customer service issues isn’t the base of a sustainable microbusiness. Don’t do it! Find a way to bundle or otherwise streamline your catalogue.

Digital Downloads are great for you if…

You love to design, you have lots of ideas for different content, and your topic and market has a large or ongoing need for your product.

Online Events

Online events are limited-time events like summits that bring people together around a certain topic. They usually contain a collection of workshops or interviews with people who are experienced in that area.

You can run these events as free or paid, and live or pre-recorded. There’s usually somewhere, like a pop-up Facebook group, for people to ask questions about the workshops and connect with the presenters and attendees. 

Examples

The Australian Homeschooling Summit – I started this in 2017 and then ran it yearly. It was key to building and accelerating my homeschooling business. I sold packages of the recordings for years, then used them as the base of a membership. It was always a lot of fun and I met so many great people doing it.

Positives of online events

Fast growth. It’s the sort of stand-out event that can get you 1000+ email subscribers in a few weeks.

Collaboration and connection. Yep, you HAVE to talk to other people to get them to contribute to your event! It’s a great way to make business connections that often turn into friends, and will work with you and support you with many things over the years to come. It might be just what you need to break the ice with people you admire.

Uncommon in many areas. Lots of people shy away from organising something like this, which means that it’s easy to stand out when you launch it.

Can turn it into an evergreen product. You can record and sell your content as a product, or use it as a base for a membership content library, or even put it for free on YouTube to build your business. Don’t just run the event then forget about it!

Negatives of online events

Saturated in some areas. If you’re in certain areas, like online business, there are online events every few weeks. You’d need to do something very different to stand out.

Can be hard to recruit contributors. I didn’t have a lot of presenters at my first couple of summits. I sent out dozens of emails and messages, and the vast majority ignored or said no. My biggest problem was people who didn’t feel comfortable on video. After three summits I had the opposite problem, and had to be ruthless about who was included.

LOTS of potential for problems! I ran most of my summit workshops live, which meant I’ve experienced pretty much every issue. I’ve had presenters just not turn up to their live workshop, presenters who do a terrible job because they obviously haven’t prepared at all, and so many tech glitches. It can be very stressful, but I feel it’s inoculated me against unexpected problems – not much fazes me anymore! 

Online events are great for you if…

You’re good at organising multiple moving parts, you’re not afraid to pitch a lot of people with your great idea, you have a win-win mentality, and you can deal with unexpected hiccups.

Memberships

It seems like memberships are the current big thing, and it’s easy to see why – they’re very adaptable, and are the best way to smooth out the typical peaks and troughs of online business income.

Memberships include anything that people pay a regular, ongoing fee for. There’s a LOT you can do in and for a membership.

They commonly include one or more of the following:

  • Community
  • Resource library (printables, courses, anything useful/educational)
  • Regular newsletter/resources
  • Private podcast
  • Live group coaching or Q&A sessions
  • Coworking sessions/accountability

So a membership can really contain anything you commit to delivering on a regular basis.

Examples

I’m a member of Liz Wilcox’s Email Marketing Membership. I get a huge library of existing email templates for ideas, plus a fresh email template every week. I’m part of a special cohort that also gets access to her courses, and to Get It Done weeks for each course once a year. 

I’m also a member of Leonie Dawson’s Academy – it contains ALL the courses and workshops she’s ever produced, and she adds new workshops/templates/products regularly, plus a live monthly Q&A session.

Both only require maintenance and a small amount of new content added each month by the creator, which means I get a huge amount of content for a great price, and the creators can make a great return on their work.

Positives of memberships

Recurring income. A membership generally has a fairly predictable and stable income once it’s established. You may have members paying on different schedules (weekly/monthly/yearly), and there will always be people leaving and joining, but overall you’ll know what’s likely to land in your bank account each month.

Routine. You just have to deliver on your promise. Whether that’s a meal plan every Monday, or a live coworking session each month, you know exactly what’s expected from you.

Scale. If you have a big library of content people will pay a decent price for ongoing access. But you might only need to spend 5 hours a week maintaining and creating the new content.

Negatives of memberships

They can be repetitive. If you say you’re going to send out a new meal plan each Monday, you HAVE to do it. Which means you have to be organised, and schedule content ahead of time so you can have breaks.

Communities require daily work. Most memberships include a community, and they need moderation, conversation prompts, and nurturing. It can take a lot of work to build and maintain an active and safe community.

Taking a break is hard. Leading from the two points above, you can’t just drop your membership for a month and do something else, unless you frontload your work and hire people to run it for you. Or unless you make it very clear ahead of time that June is your holiday month, and you’ll be pausing everything then.

Memberships are great for you if…

You love a routine, you’re happy to show up regularly, and you’re committed to building a community around your topic.

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing involves selling a product or service for someone else. You receive a commission for any sales that you make.

Typically, you sign up to their program, and you receive a special link with some tracking code attached. 

For example, here’s my affiliate link for MailerLite. You can see the tracking code at the end.

When someone clicks on your link a cookie is set on their device that links them to your affiliate account.

If they purchase within the commission period, which can be anywhere from 24h to lifetime, you’ll receive a percentage of their sale.

The percentage is typically anything from 1-50%.

Affiliate marketing works best when you sell things that you know, use, and love. If you like writing-depth reviews and tutorials, or you can talk about the products you use in a natural way, this can be a great way to boost your income.

Positives of affiliate marketing

Great passive income. You don’t need to do customer service or maintain a product, you simply need to share it.

Easy to start. All you need is a site. You don’t need to worry about payment processing, or private content – you want your content to be as easily accessible as possible.

Negatives of affiliate marketing

It’s still a long game. Some people say ‘just share the link and you’ll make money!’ But unfortunately you can’t just drop the link randomly and expect to make decent, ongoing income. You need to put effort into selling anything, including someone else’s product. Building a respectable income from affiliate marketing, like anything else, will take time and trust.

You have NO control. If the company closes, or stops their affiliate program, or does something dodgy that you don’t want to be associated with, you stop earning. And all the work you’ve put into promoting that company, like your reviews and tutorials, are now worthless to you. Yes, it does happen, and yes, it’s happened to me. Don’t build your business around one company or platform.

You need to vet companies carefully. Companies that have high-quality freebies and are good at selling are great to partner with. For those companies I could write a thorough, SEO-optimised review, and expect them to pay me every month. But I sent over 10,000 visitors to one site and received $12.53 because they weren’t set up well to convert traffic. 

Affiliate marketing is great for you if…

You use and love products that have a great affiliate program, you enjoy writing in-depth reviews and tutorials, and you’re happy to help people decide if purchasing is right for them.

Advertising

Advertising typically involves putting ads on your site, using an ad network.

You need at least 10,000 sessions per month to begin to make money, and the higher-paying networks like MediaVine require at least 50,000 sessions per month before they’ll take you on.

You can also put ads on YouTube and other platforms. Again, you need to fulfil certain criteria like minimum numbers of subscribers and watch hours.

You’ll then get paid based on ad impressions and clicks, so you need to maintain high pageviews to 

So for ads, you need to create a LOT of content, typically SEO optimised. 

Positives of ads

Ads can be fairly passive when you’re set up. If the traffic/watch hours keep rolling in, you keep getting paid. It’s another positive about long-form evergreen content (long content that stays relevant for years).

All you need to do is create content. If you enjoy writing or making videos all you need to do is keep doing that. Publish two quality blog posts or videos a week and you’ll start making progress very soon.

AI is making this easier. Don’t believe the hype that AI can write all your content for you and it’ll magically rank. Google is smarter than that. But you can use AI to research keywords, outline posts, and do some of the hard work for you. 

Negatives of ads

You need a LOT of traffic/followers to make a decent income. Ads pay per impression/click, so you need a lot of both.

That takes time. You don’t get 50,000 sessions a month or 4000 watch hours in 365 days without creating a lot of high-quality content.

You’re subject to the Google gods. Every Google update seems to destroy people’s traffic. If your traffic halves overnight, so does your income. You’ll need to keep very up-to-date with Google’s requirements, and regularly review and update older content to stay in line with their requirements.

You probably have to do ALL the things. To really be successful with ads now you need to do a lot of things to maximise your traffic – it’s rarely as simple as relying solely on SEO. Have an email list, make great pins and descriptions for Pinterest, add videos to each post, have professional-quality photos, update each post yearly…the work (or payment to outsource) does add up.

My experience with chasing ads: I started a site about tie-dyeing with the goal of getting MediaVine and YouTube monetisation. I created so much content, and just when things were starting to grow fast I’d get hit with another update, and it would drop back down and take months to recover. 

I decided I wanted to get off that treadmill, because I knew from experience that my time and my effort would be much better spent creating digital products…and that’s why I’m here, writing this now, instead of editing yet another dye video.

Ads are great for you if…

You’re great at creating high-traffic, sticky content, and building a large audience, you enjoy digging into the data and using it to create even better content, and you’d prefer to do that instead of creating your own products.

Layering income streams

No, you don’t have to stop at one income stream idea! Mixing and matching will give you exponential results AND far more income stability.

Here are some ideas.

  • Stick affiliate links inside your course and membership.
  • Run themed months in your membership and get a matching business to sponsor that month.
  • Bundle your courses and digital downloads together and sell packages.
  • Create a planner/time tracker/spreadsheet as a bonus for your course, and sell it as a stand-alone digital download.
  • Create a brilliant course and then create an introductory ebook to market it.
  • Put ads up with affiliate links on relevant pages.

So as you can see, you’re not just limited to chasing followers on Instagram and then hoping companies will sponsor you to shill their products in a ‘natural’ way that everyone can see through. 

Or signing up to an MLM disguised as high-ticket affiliate marketing.

Instead, I hope your brain is buzzing with dozens of income stream ideas to help you take your knowledge and experience and turn it into a profitable online business.

I’d love to hear what you’ve come up with – please share your ideas in the comments!

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