Your audience is always willing to “pay” to read your publication. How much they are willing to pay is the unknown you must uncover. Let’s explore the possibilities and put an approach together for your publication. Before we begin, consider what your audience will tolerate:

Your reader will always pay by Accepting ads, Subscribing with hard dollars, or both

Advertising comes in many flavors and the right model for you depends on who your audience is. Hard $$ tend to come from rabid fans or solving a real need in a niche where the pain of paying is less than than the pain of not having easy access to your content.

Lets take a look at the 4 best methods of generating profit today…

1. The Banner Ad – to automate or not to automate

Considered today to be the lowest income generator for publications, the banner ad ranges from Google Adwords (the won’t buy you a cup of coffee ads), the targeted ad network such as media.net or Conversant, to the carefully handpicked advertisers whose products or services perfectly matches your audience. Typically the tighter the niche the better fit handpicking ads has for income generation and audience clicks (and the more time it takes).

Let’s look at a golf example: If you publish about golf you will likely be casting a wide net for different advertisers. Advertisers know that your golf publication will be read by teens, young adults, adults, retirees, amateur, pro, and other golfers. Their ads will likely be one of many and your ad rates will likely be lower… why? There are lots of places golf vendors can advertise to reach the “golfer mass market”.

Now let go niche. Lets say you publish to handicapped golfers. Your advertisers will be fewer but you will know which handicap golf vendors would be a perfect fit for your publication. You can build a relationship with them directly and they will pay more per ad click because they know their target customer is reading your publication. A handicap golf chair manufacturer wants to show up in your publication.

Should you sell ads directly or automate them?

It depends. If you publish say a news site that reaches a broader audience you will need to

  1. Charge less since your target reader might not be the ideal target customer for your advertiser
  2. Display more ads to make up for the reduced ad revenue (and clutters the reader experience)
  3. Automate your ads: if you need to cycle ads in and out quickly you will likely use an automated service that can insert ads matching broader category choices. It’s not ideal but you can set it and forget it. This approach is what the digital publishing industry is struggling with to make a profit and if you cover a broad category it will be a challenge to rely solely on ad revenue.
  4. If you are mixing ad types then reserve your best ad zones (EG header zone, in app) for advertisers you will deal with directly, and automate the non-premium zones.

Bottom line: If you are a niche publisher, go after your advertisers directly. You know who they are and they are willing to pay a premium. In fact if you are doing a good job with your content they will come after you. If you are publishing to broader audience you will need to explore an ad network services. Mix the 2 approaches if it makes sense.

Related: The video ad. Video ads are generating more revenue for advertisers as they have proven to be more engaging. If you plan on inserting video ads, take a lesson from Facebook… set them up to silently auto-play when they become visible. The key is silent auto-play. This grabs visual attention, without sending readers running from blasting audio. The reader can opt to un-mute the video if it looks interesting. It works.

2. Native Ads – preserving the trust

Are you obvious enough?
Are you obvious enough?

What is a native ad? Remember the advertorial in magazines? Well, native advertising is the same thing. You publish an article that is sponsored or paid as if it were a regular article. The difference is you must flag it to the reader as “Promoted or Sponsored” and do so in an obvious way. A native ad has many benefits since it behaves like a normal article:

  • It shows up in Google search
  • It can be shared in social media
  • It shows up in mobile devices since it is part of the news stream
  • Since it is part of your article flow readers can’t ignore it as well as they filter banner ads

The New York Times who only recently has started selling native ads has reported that native advertising is already almost 10% of their digital revenue.

Wait native ads are misleading and stinky!

This John Oliver video will make you laugh. It’s funny, and in a completely satirical way, lambastes the entire native advertising movement. He points out that advertising and editorial are “church and state” and should never be mixed together. Is he right? Watch the video and keep reading below.

Since HBO uses a “100% subscription” model it’s easy to take a stance against native advertising, banner ads, video ads, really any sort of advertising… but I think he and HBO are completely wrong. Actually what I think might not really matter at all. Let’s consider a couple of facts debunking HBO’s “lack of native ads”:

  • HBO does advertise other shows (their own) and sports/boxing pay per view in front of their programming. Since these ads are baked in to your viewing experience you could consider it a form of native advertising.
  • Apple Inc’s computers and Chrysler’s Jeep vehicles are frequently seen in HBO’s popular shows and films. Product placement is considered native advertising (ads mixed into the content).

Consider John’s statement that 50% of a publications readership doesn’t realize they are reading a sponsored ad. I take that as 50% of publishers know how to be transparent and produce good sponsored ads that their readers notice… and that 50% of publishers suck at being transparent and try to hide their ads as editorial content.

What’s does this all boil down to?

Trust and how you handle your readers is the only thing that matters.

If you are careful to be obvious with your sponsored/native ads so there is no doubt that something is an ad then you will be one of the 50% of publishers that is getting it right.

And since native ads do produce good revenue income, you won’t want to break that trust and send readers running… oh and the FTC might be watching you

If you want to try out a free Sponsored Article plugin you can find it here.

3. Your Paywall – readers try before they buy

If you think your content solves a pain point for your audience that motivates them enough to pay then you absolutely should be running a metered paywall.

What is a metered paywall? Simply a metered paywall lets your reader view X number of articles over a Y time frame. This is what the New York Times does. They offer you 10 free articles before they prompt you to subscribe. The benefits of a metered paywall vs. a hard paywall (where you can’t access any content until you pay) is that all your articles will show up in Google search and all your articles can be virally shared in Facebook. This lets readers find your publication when they search Google for info that you are publishing about and lets them share any one of your articles with all their friends, and all their friend’s friends.

One of your articles could be shared with millions of different readers. Only when one individual starts to look at other articles on your site do they start using their allotment of free articles until they are prompted to subscribe.

You can charge 2 ways:

  1. Charge a monthly or annual recurring subscription. Keep in mind digital price points can be very low today: you can charge $2 per month, $19 per year, offer a day pass for $1… digital lets you test different approaches. Don’t be afraid to charge up if your content is truly valuable. Vogue Magazine charges over $1000 to let readers access their archives.
  2. Let readers access your content in exchange for an email address. If you plan of building an email list and marketing your products or selling your list to advertisers, consider making readers cough up their email before letting them at your content. Gaining a targeted reader’s email address is still one of the best marketing strategies today.

Let’s have a look at a small publisher who is successfully charging subscriptions: DKonPittsburgSports runs a sports news blog with a metered paywall for both it’s web and app content, and his 10,000 paying subscribers are managed in one WordPress dashboard. Find out how he did it.

Bonus strategy: Let subscribers post events on your news site. The GeneseeSun lets any paid subscriber publish events on their community events calendar. Local events are a challenge to publish but if you can leverage the power of your audience and locals who want to promote their events you could become THE go to resource for local events. Genesee used the Events Manager plugin to pull this off.

Bonus bonus pricing tip: If you are just starting out start with the lowest price you can stand (and advertise a limited offer). Over time it’s easier to raise your prices than lower them. Why? When you start low you will get more paying subscribers early on and that allows you to build momentum. It also lets you start learning what your audience truly wants and when you deliver that value, you will become comfortable with the next step of raising your prices. If you start too high you will trickle in subscribers and turn away folks that otherwise might have paid to try you out. That means little momentum and less learning about your audience.

4. Ad Blogging – letting advertisers promote 24/7 on your site

One of the best kept secrets in advertising is simply giving your advertisers the ability to blog their promotions on your website’s homepage. Let’s call them “ad bloggers”

Instead of filling up premium space with banner ads, go ultra premium: let advertisers publish their promotions on your site any time of day. Think of it as native meets banners. This works especially well for advertisers that would like to promote lots of different products, services and promotions to your audience.

How it works: You set up a dedicated ad zone on your site, preferably on the home page or in a premium spot. Create an author level on your site that lets your advertiser log in and add promotions any time of day (moderate the promos if you wish). Promos run from top to bottom (see image below) in your ad zone. A new promo that is published will push the previous top promo down 1 spot. This creates a naturally competitive cycle of advertisers logging in to publish what they want to promote in your top spot. The best part? Your readers will love it. They will get real time promos for your advertisers faster then they could anywhere else and that adds value to your publication.

Here’s what it looks like for a The Camden Herald a local news site in Maine:

Banners_and_Alerts_and_News_-_Rockland_-_Camden_-_Knox_-_Courier-Gazette_-_Camden_Herald
Home page ad zone

See how the most recent ad posts get to sit at the top of the bizOffers section? These ads are published right on the home page and advertisers are publishing daily to promote their offerings. All they do is pay for the service ($20/week), log in and post their promo. If you click through an ad post (see image below) you will see that advertisers can publish images, text and video.

Tidepieces_Original_Tide_Clocks_at_Beyond_the_Sea_-_Great_for_Father’s_Day__-_By_Beyond_the_Sea_-_Rockland_-_Camden_-_Knox_-_Courier-Gazette_-_Camden_Herald
Clicking through an ad delivers the details

Profitability: I have been watching the Camden Herald for over 5 years now and seen their bizOffers section grow over that time. I don’t have hard numbers but at 300 advertisers they would making $312,000 per year just from their ad bloggers.

Bonus visibility: Each ad post that is published gets picked up by Google search and is easily shared in Facebook sending the site more visitors.

Bottom line: More Profit per Pixel

Advertisers can post their promotions any time of day with text, photos and even video, right in your most premium ad location… the advertiser that posts a promotion last gets the top spot. This encourages advertisers to log in frequently and publish their offers.

A Win-Win-Win

  1. Readers get fresh and relevant promotions
  2. Advertisers get instant access to your best ad spot
  3. You (the publisher) get to charge a recurring fee to give each advertiser access to your community

Challenge: the hardest part of managing this type of ad network is educating your advertisers as to what it is, how they will log in and gain access to your site, and you also need to remind them to do it (keep an ad blogger email list going).

If you publish with WordPress and would like to add this type of revenue to your publication check out the AccessAds plugin.

So which approach is best?

They have all proven to work. Try different approaches and pricing models. You can combine them all if it makes sense for your audience or create one very streamlined experience. Think about who your audience is and talk to them to find out what motivates them.

Only you can make your own secret profit sauce.

Thoughts?