Why Passive Income Websites are a Waste of Time (and How WordPress Can Earn You More Money)

Why Passive Income Websites are a Waste of Time (and How WordPress Can Earn You More Money)

“You can watch the money roll in without lifting a finger.” “Kick back on the beach as your profits soar.” “Wouldn’t you like to make a living while on vacation?” You’ve likely heard all of these pitches before. If you’re involved in the online business world at all, odds are good you have.

These pitches are the main marketing points of passive income sites. You know, the tried and true Internet marketing campaigns that promise the world without any work? Yeah, those. So many people swear by the passive income business model. And hey, if it’s working for you, great. A success story is a success story.

But I have a bit of a bone to pick with the whole idea of “passive income.” Because in reality, I don’t think there’s anything passive about them at all.

I know that’s a pretty bold claim, especially since the concept of generating passive income online is so prevalent. But I want you to stick with me for a bit while I discuss why I believe this to be the case and how you can embrace these decidedly impassive sites to build revenue using WordPress.

What Is a Passive Income Site?

According to Investopedia, passive income can be defined as any earnings someone brings in “…from a rental property, limited partnership or other enterprise in which he or she is not actively involved.” Sounds simple enough, right? And in fairness, the concept is pretty simple. Passive income is money you make while not doing anything.

As far as how this applies to the online world, there’s very little difference in the definition. I like how it’s defined at Real Passive Income Ideas, actually:

“…passive income streams simply come from assets, and assets are either bought with money (eg rental property) or […] bought through sweat (eg ebook).” — Richard, Real Passive Income Ideas

Whatever your asset, be it a home or an autoresponder course, the idea is to put it out there then let it do the work for you. And then you can lounge on your deck, kick up your feet, and watch as the moolah rolls in.

Passive income sites act as a central hub for your online moneymaking activities. Like a portfolio or a resume site, a passive income site works to promote something on your behalf. However, unlike these other kinds of sites, you don’t actually have to do any work to make a sale.

So far I’ve been talking about all of this in pretty abstract terms. It’s time to change that and get down to the specifics.

Some Ways People Make “Passive” Income Online

In all reality, any business that involves selling a product is passive in some way. I mean, once the product is developed and created, you’re not actively creating it anymore; rather, you stand back and watch as people buy it and your bank account grows. But when you hear people talk about online passive income, they’re referring to a specific kind of business and specific kinds of products.

Here are a few examples:

A Blog Site with Affiliate Links

One of the most popular ways to earn income passively online is by starting a blog and populating it with affiliate links.

So, the idea here is you’d create a site about a topic you enjoy or have some knowledge of already. You’d add new content regularly as you should with any blog.

The Best Espresso Machines is a blog dedicated to coffee makers--and includes plenty of Amazon affiliate links to rake in the dough.
The Best Espresso Machines is a blog dedicated to coffee makers–and includes plenty of Amazon affiliate links to rake in the dough.

Then you can sign up for affiliate programs for products or services related to your blog’s topic and include links to these things in your posts.

You can also include links or banner ads in your site’s sidebar for the affiliate programs.

A blog site is about as low-cost as you can get in terms of starting up and it can be quite low maintenance. Once you get your initial content up on the site, you can outsource new posts and so long as those affiliate links are included, you can—in theory—watch your bank account grow while you sit back and relax.

An Online Store That Uses Dropshipping

Creating a product to sell is decidedly active, not passive. And selling other people’s products is active too when you have to build your own store and maintain inventory. However, if you use dropshipping, all you have to do is set up a store and drive was web traffic to it. Everything else is handled by another company and you walk away with a share of the profits.

An eBook

Another popular online passive income strategy is to write an ebook. Then you just need to build a website for it and watch as the money rolls in with each purchase. You only have to do the work upfront and then you just sit back and enjoy notifications from PayPal as more moolah hits your account. This is often touted as one of the best ways to earn a passive income online.

Tom Ewer's Paid to Blog guide is an ebook and e-course in one.
Tom Ewer’s Paid to Blog guide is an ebook and e-course in one.

Resell an Online Product 

You can also resell digital products created by others. This is a good option if you don’t have the time to create an ebook or something but still want to earn passive money. Basically, you sign up for an affiliate account with someone who’s created a digital product (ebook, guide, online course, WordPress theme or plugin, etc) and build a site to promote that product. You can either sell it directly on your site or sell it via affiliate links to the primary seller’s site. If you make a sale, you’ll earn a commission.

Start an Online Course and Sell Memberships

Another thing you can do is create an online course for a particular subject. If you feel like you have some know-how that could be useful to people, write down your thoughts and build a course around them. You can offer this information through a membership system. People pay a fee to access the course.

Backstage is a powerful membership site with exclusive forums, classes, and a job board.

After you create it, people will just continue to sign up for a membership and you’ll continue to earn. You could even create videos for your course instructing people how to do something like performing the perfect golf swing or cooking your award-winning chili recipe.

Create a Website Guide 

One final option is to create a website guide. So if you’re really into fishing in your spare time, you might want to write a guide to fishing in a particular region or use a particular strategy you’ve found effective. Or if you’ve been successful on social media, your guide might be a list of strategies for building a following.

This sort of falls between creating a blog and an online course. The information can be presented on your site for free with affiliate links or through a subscription. How you earn income here will vary, of course, but the idea is the same as the other methods described above: Create something once and continue to collect income for months or years to come.

The Passive Income Setup

Now, anyone in the business of convincing you to start a passive online company will tell you that getting started does take actual work. Often, quite a bit of work. You’ll need to write a piece of intellectual property from scratch like an eBook, guide, or several blog posts. You’ll need to set up an online store. And though you’re not creating the products yourself, you will still need to invest considerable time in setting up the site and customizing it.

This startup work is something that anyone involved in establishing passive income will admit requires some serious elbow grease. It’s the great exception to the whole notion of “passive” income in that it’s decidedly not passive. And for the most part, this is acceptable. People seem to get on board with this idea. “Hey, if I just buckle down and do a bunch of work right now, I’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor later.” It’s a simple enough concept.

But I think the passive income purveyors tend to ignore a few important facts. And this is the most important one. Yes, there is work involved with setting up a passive income site but…

The Non-passive Part of Passive Income

Therein lies the rub. Seriously, this is my biggest problem with passive income sites and all the 4-hour workweek, get rich quick Internet marketing gurus on the web today. They’re all quick to admit that setting up a passive income stream takes really hard work but they often ignore the maintenance factor.

It’s best to illustrate this by example.

Let’s say you start a blog site. You put in a ton of effort and time in getting everything just right and pre-write a bunch of posts, making sure to sprinkle affiliate links throughout. Once it goes live, you can just step back and watch the cash roll in, right?

Not exactly, even though that’s what passive income pushers would have you believe. No, once your site goes live, you need to perform various marketing tasks like promoting your posts and interacting with people on social media, commenting on other blogs, and seeking out new promotional opportunities. Oh and any good blog out there isn’t just preloaded with content and left to stagnate. No, you actually have to write new posts, too. And even if you hire someone to write the post for you, it’s you who has to edit them, schedule them, and overseas the whole operation. All of these things are not passive at all.

One can argue, of course, that you can outsource all of these tasks, which would make the business much more passive. Fair enough. But taking that route makes the whole notion of a passive income site blend in with any other kind of online business out there for which you’d be the owner who had hired people to complete day-to-day operations.

For most people, starting a passive income stream requires more hard work than daily beach lounging allows.
For most people, starting a passive income stream requires more hard work than daily beach lounging allows.

That’s why I think the whole concept of passive income sites are based on a fallacy that they are different somehow from any other business and any other money-making scheme. For one, you still have to put in a ton of work to make anything worthwhile. People argue that it winds up being worth it because you’ll continue to make money long after you’ve finished creating that online course or ebook or what have you, but I think that’s a faulty assumption as well.

You see, you’re putting in all of this effort upfront for which you’re not being paid. You’ll then earn your paycheck for this effort you put in on spec later while you’re not directly working anymore. So, when you get down to it, that’s really just delayed income, not passive income!

And if you outsource the maintenance work required for your site, you’re effectively acting as CEO of your little online business. You still have to think about the big picture stuff, oversea product creation, and make decisions about how to move forward. And that’s different from running any other kind of business, how?

I guess what I’m trying to say is what’s the point of creating a separate category for “passive” businesses when it’s really just a hyped-up way to promote going into business for yourself?

It might all seem pedantic but I think the words we use to describe things are important. And calling a business passive when it really isn’t can set people up for disappointment and even failure. It’s not a fair description of the work involved. Sure, you might be able to lounge on a beach as money rolls in but only after you’ve put in many hours of work first and only with the knowledge that you’ll have to sit back down at the computer again at some point to invest further in your business.

All of this being said, it’s true that some businesses require more work than others. So while I think there’s no such thing as a passive income site I do think low maintenance income sites exist. And lucky for all you WordPress users out there, some tools and methods do exist that make it possible to increase the earning potential of your sites.

Low Maintenance Income for WordPress 

Just because the whole notion of passive income isn’t all that passive, doesn’t mean you can’t build monetization into your WordPress site with minimal effort. You’ll still need to participate in all of the general site upkeep tasks like writing new posts, marketing, and site maintenance, but the money-making approach you take can be quite simple and require little work on your part once set up.

Passive Income Tools

I’ve put together a small collection of plugins here that make WordPress site monetization a snap.

Note: Many of these plugins require that you sign up for a membership with a third-party site to be effective.

Advanced Ads

Advanced Ads logo.
Advanced Ads might be a perfect fit.

If earning from ads is more your style, the Advanced Ads plugin is a good choice. It’s simple to use and ideal for those who deal primarily in content. The plugin itself is lightweight and makes it easy to manage and display ads on your site. It even includes features for conducting split testing and optimization.

And if you’re serious about your ad income—taking it away from low-maintenance territory here—you can make use of the several paid add-ons available like tracking, responsive ads, sticky ads, and popup ads.

Easy Digital Downloads

Easy Digital Downloads banner.
For an easy solution, give Easy Digital Downloads a try!

Should you decide to put together an ebook and try to make some semi-passive money off of selling copies of it, Easy Digital Downloads is a good choice for managing everything. This plugin is a full e-commerce solution for selling digital products on your website.

It comes with a cart system, promotional code support, multiple payment gateway support, a user purchase history, product bundles, variable pricing, customizable receipts, earnings charts, and more. There are a lot of features here so it’s definitely not passive but once your site is all set up, Easy Digital Downloads offers a convenient way to sell your digital products without much hassle or upkeep.


LearnDash logo
LearnDash is an LMS that’s made easy.

Another way to add a course to your WordPress site is LearnDash. This full-fledged learning management system (LMS) offers tons of features for setting up any kind of online class you can imagine. Create certificates of completion for your students or run your class based on a point system. Offer multi-tier courses complete with topics, quizzes, and more. Leave comments on and approve submitted assignments. too.

You can also establish course prerequisites, drip-feed content, create advanced quizzes with seven question types, send custom messages, set up dynamic forms, and offer user profiles. Also included are lesson timers, user progress reports, multisite compatibility, media integration, user groups, email notifications, support, and more.


Sensei logo
Sensei is a great option, with all the tools you need for an LMS.

The last plugin I’m going to talk about here today is Sensei from WooThemes. This plugin offers another way to create courses, take on new students, and offer assessments within the WordPress dashboard. Though you can use it as a full LMS, it’s also useful for setting up a course and then walking away. Automatic assessments make it totally possible to accomplish this.

Some features include easy user registration, WooCommerce integration, access to Sensei themes, course analytics, a question bank, quiz grading, and more.

Plus there are many extensions available for Sensei that add on more features like Sensei Content Drip.

Wrapping Up

The whole concept of passive income is kind of a load of hooey. Low maintenance income? Sure. I can get on board with that. But truly passive? Not so much. And I think promoting these kinds of online marketing businesses as anything different than your standard Internet-based companies is being a little bit dishonest to those who are hungry to make a better life for themselves.

It’s a much better idea to admit work is involved to get these sites and income streams up and running, don’t you think?

Have you dipped your toes into the passive income waters? How much work did you have to put in? How much do you still have to do to keep it afloat? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments below.
Brenda Barron
Brenda Barron Brenda Barron is a freelance writer from Southern California. She specializes in WordPress, tech, business and founded WP Theme Roundups. When not writing all the things, she's spending time with her family.