Subscriptions and advertising are vital to nearly every digital publisher. Most organizations derive the majority of their revenue from one of these sources — or some combination of both — and so they understandably get the lion's share of attention.
However, while they are indisputably important, subscriptions and advertising are not the only monetization strategies available to publishers. For various reasons — such as organizational philosophy, a desire to diversify, or simply savvy opportunism — a number of outlets have branched out over the past few years and built substantial additional revenue streams.
What are some of these alternative monetization strategies? How are they being executed? Who are they being utilized by? Here are four approaches that publishers of all sizes can learn from:
- Affiliate Revenue
Making money online from affiliate partnerships is nothing new; it has been been the model for many niche blogs and commerce-related sites for a long time.
However, it has only been fairly recently that mainstream content publishers have found an approach that balances strong editorial with effective affiliate offerings which generate revenue at scale.
The key is full transparency and high relevance: audiences are showing that they are receptive to affiliate links in content as long as the publisher includes them in pieces where shopping is the natural next step (e.g., reviews about products/services), is completely upfront about the partnerships, and connects consumers with trusted e-commerce sites that have good prices.
This is the successful strategy employed by both BuzzFeed (e.g., "47 Amazing Gifts Under $20 That Anyone Will Want To Receive") as well as The Wirecutter (e.g., "The Best Credit Cards of 2018"), and it can be utilized fairly easily by a wide-range of different types of publishers.
- Publisher-Branded Products and Experiences
If selling other firms' products and services works as a monetization strategy, why shouldn't publishers sell offerings of their own?
Many organizations are concluding that they should.
Most often this looks something like the approach The Economist takes with its online store: the publisher sells a combination of branded products such as leather-bound notebooks, historical archives, eCourses, and books of interest to its audience.
The next step is in-person events and experiences, such as TimesTalks from The New York Times, which charges fairly steep ticket prices to see live interviews with high-profile individuals.
Of course, these sorts of events are more difficult to execute than online stores — but they can also be more lucrative.
How lucrative? It's been reported that Re/code, the tech outlet founded by WSJ alums Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, generates the vast majority of its revenue from its annual Code Conference, not from content.
- Content/Brand Studios
As digital marketing has shifted towards areas like sponsored offerings and native ads, brands have increasingly needed partners with content expertise.
Given that content is what publishers do, it's no surprise that a number of organizations have identified this need and created in-house studios to help marketers.
For some outlets, such as FastCo Works from Fast Company, this has meant getting paid to help marketers develop offerings that are distributed primarily on the publisher's owned channels (website, social accounts, etc.).
However, for others, such as The Wall Street Journal with its WSJ Custom Studios, this has meant diving fully into building out a mini (or not-so-mini) agency with a wide-range of capabilities.
This approach has pluses and minuses which make it good for some publishers but not for others: On one hand it has the potential to become a sizable business that can generate significant revenue; on the other, it often means evolving the organization beyond its core competencies (which results in growing pains) and grappling with a new set of competitors, such as ad/marketing agencies.
- Crowdfunding, Partial Ownership, and Donations
Finally, some publishers have directly asked audiences for money in order to fund journalism.
This has taken a number of different forms. Republik, a Swiss site, ran a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2017 that generated millions of dollars and nearly 14,000 members who now donate regularly to keep the publication going.
Positive News, a UK-based outlet, went one step further: it sold ownership stakes to its readers and turned itself into a member-run cooperative.
A less radical approach is that taken by The Guardian: the publication asks site visitors to make a one-time or recurring donation to "help deliver the independent journalism the world needs."
Of course, these different tactics are not mutually exclusive: They can be used in various combinations, along with subscriptions and advertising, to generate the funding needed. Ultimately, there is no single solution to the monetization puzzle for most publishers; rather, crafting a stable and sustainable business likely requires a mix of different approaches.