Top 5 Strategies to Generate Revenue without Ads
The writing has been on the wall for years. The decline of display advertising has been well documented in this publication and others. CPM rates for ads have fallen at the same time ad viewability has been called into question. Rather than sit back and wait for the walls to potentially come crashing down around them, a growing number of online publishers are looking at new opportunities for diversification.
Some publishers are making a sharp pivot and leaving behind display advertising altogether. Others are combining strategies as they look for new ways to generate revenue without ads. What these publishers are finding is that the world outside of display advertising is ripe with opportunities.
At Web Publisher PRO, we’re hearing more digital publishers ask about web-based platforms and plugins that they can use to add membership programs, special sections, paywalls, and other revenue-generating channels to their existing websites.
Whether you’re looking for complementary streams of revenue to go along with existing advertising programs, or you’re thinking about ditching display advertising altogether, I’ve put together a list of the most popular ways publishers are generating revenue without ads.
1. Membership Programs
One of the most popular ways for publishers to generate revenue without ads right now is by launching reader membership programs. Membership programs bring readers into the fold with benefits that go beyond just exclusive content. Members can get access to private Facebook groups, virtual events and happy hours, special newsletters, and even branded swag. Selling digital memberships to readers means publishers aren’t beholden to their advertisers’ opinions. They do, however, need to take the preferences of their readership into account when developing strategies and content initiatives.
How much publishers can expect to earn from membership programs depends on the size of their audience and the price point they select. Platforms like Pico make it easy for publishers to capture membership information and payments through one-click email signup forms and high-converting checkout experiences. These types of web-based tools are usually available for a set monthly price that ranges from free, for the smallest publishers, to $5 per month, per 2,000 contacts for larger organizations.
In the digital news space, we’re seeing great success from publishers asking for reader revenue support. Generally with this model, the news outlet is not limiting any content but simply asking for reader support. This strategy is working well with both for-profit and non-profit publishers that provide a community service through hyperlocal journalism.
2. Special Sections
If you’ve ever contemplated adding a special section to your website, now is the time to do it. With graduation ceremonies canceled around the country, and families looking for ways to publicly recognize their graduates, publishers have the perfect opportunity to launch special graduation sections in their print magazines and online publications. Special sections, like the “Congratulations Class of 2020” launched by Bethesda Magazine earlier this spring, are a great way to generate revenue and bring new readers into the fold. With the right self-serve tools, readers can actually upload and pay for listings in these sections on their own.
From an SEO perspective, launching a special section can bring in more traffic from search engines. With the right conversion mechanisms in place, publishers have a great opportunity to capture the email addresses of people who arrive through Google and Bing, or through social shares on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
3. Directory Listings
Online directories open up the door to multiple streams of revenue. Businesses, local organizations, schools, and other groups can add their own directory listings through self-serve portals that publishers add to their websites. Publishers can charge for directory listings, or they can keep basic listings free and charge extra for enhanced features like images, videos, and social media integration.
Online directories tend to work especially well for city and regional magazines. Publishers like TRNTO, a digital lifestyle publication in Toronto, are generating revenue through restaurant directories and local camp guides. Publishers who opt to continue selling advertising can run banner ads atop their directory listings, as well.
Paywalls aren’t just for the largest news outlets. Publishers of all sizes can generate revenue through paywalls when they position themselves as leaders in their spaces. What does that mean? For starters, it means publishers need to be providing value to their readers. They need to give readers a reason to be willing to pay to get behind their paywalls. What content is reserved for paying readers, and why is it worth the cost?
The Shawnee Mission Post, in Northeast Johnson County, Kansas, has done an exceptional job crafting a paywall that works. After building an audience over the past decade and growing its subscriber base, the publisher set up a paywall and charged readers $5.95 per month for access. With fewer than a half dozen staffers, the Post has been able to reach 2,650 paying subscribers, with an annual run rate of almost $190,000. That success was largely based on the publisher’s willingness to closely watch website metrics and produce more of the types of content that readers were engaging with. The Post also sends satisfaction surveys to its subscribers to learn what they’d like to see in the publication.
5. Affiliate Programs
When you talk about the affiliate model, most people think of Instagram influencers. But affiliate linking has gone mainstream in the past few years. Even respected outlets like The New York Times and New York Magazine are earning a little extra through affiliate links.
This strategy has the lowest barrier to entry of any strategy on this list. If you want to generate revenue without ads, this is the fastest way to do it. Just choose an affiliate program to work with — Amazon’s program is especially popular, though it recently cut commission fees for some product categories — and start embedding unique product links in your content. If a reader clicks on the link and buys the product, you’ll earn a commission on the sale.
Certain ethical standards have to be met when pursuing the affiliate model, and respected publishers usually add editor’s notes that make it clear they are earning a commission when readers click on their links.
Given the challenges that many publishers are having with digital advertising, it makes sense that so many people are interested in learning how to generate revenue without ads. If you’re not already taking advantage of any of the five strategies I’ve outlined above, I’d encourage you to give a few of them a try and let me know how it works out.
David Walsh is the founder and CEO of Web Publisher PRO, a website development agency that focuses on working with publishers on WordPress. David is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and manages some of the web's most influential publications. You can reach David at firstname.lastname@example.org.