How Are Digital Publishers Approaching Monetization: 4 Key Takeaways

How Digital Publishers Are Driving Revenue in 2023: 8 Proven Monetization Strategies

Digital publishers today face a challenging landscape. Print circulation continues to decline, and digital advertising revenues are dominated by tech giants like Google and Facebook. To thrive in 2023 and beyond, media companies must get creative and diversify how they monetize their content and audience.

As a digital strategist who has advised publishers on business models for over a decade, I‘ve seen the industry transition in real-time. While there‘s no one-size-fits-all solution, the most successful media brands are tapping into multiple revenue streams that align with their unique content and community. They‘re also staying agile, experimenting with new technologies and platforms.

Let‘s dive into eight of the most effective ways digital publishers are driving revenue in 2023, along with examples and best practices for each strategy:

  1. Paid Subscriptions and Membership Programs

Pioneered by publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the paywall and subscription model has gained traction across the industry. By gating premium content like exclusive articles, videos, podcasts, or newsletters behind a paywall, publishers can generate recurring revenue directly from their most loyal readers.

The key is providing enough unique value that readers are willing to pay. That could mean:

  • Original reporting and investigations
  • In-depth analysis and opinion
  • Access to archives
  • An ad-free experience
  • Members-only forums or events
  • Perks and discounts

One standout example is The Atlantic, which grew digital subscriptions by 124% from 2019 to 2022. Their metered paywall allows casual readers to sample content before subscribing. They‘ve also launched a premium app and ad-free podcast for subscribers.

The challenge with paid subscriptions is striking the right balance of how much content to put behind the paywall. Some opt for a hard paywall, while others use a freemium or metered model. Dynamic paywalls that adapt to individual reader behavior are also on the rise.

"The publishers in the strongest position are those who have built a direct relationship with the consumer and can segment their audiences based on willingness to pay," says Vivek Shah, CEO of J2 Global, which owns publications like IGN, Mashable, and PC Mag.

  1. Sponsored Content and Native Advertising

Another tried-and-true monetization strategy is partnering with brands to create sponsored content. Also known as native advertising or advertorial, this is content that mimics editorial but is paid for and influenced by the sponsor.

When done well, sponsored content provides value to the reader while giving brands exposure to the publisher‘s audience. Common formats include:

  • Sponsored articles or video series
  • Social media posts
  • Email newsletter placements
  • Branded podcasts
  • Webinars or events

The branded content studio has become ubiquitous at major publishers. T Brand at The New York Times, BrandLab at The Atlantic, and WIRED Brand Lab are just a few examples.

However, the key to success with sponsored content is maintaining trust and transparency. The sponsor‘s influence must be clearly disclosed, and the publisher needs to uphold their editorial standards and authenticity.

"It‘s a mistake to chase bad money and try to make it good through labeling or disclaimers," according to former BuzzFeed Vice President Rena Shapiro. "Brands and publishers will ultimately suffer if they take this low-road approach."

To command higher rates for sponsored content, publishers need to provide full-service strategy and execution. The Atlantic‘s Re:Think studio is an oft-cited case study, driving 60% of the company‘s ad revenue.

  1. Virtual and In-Person Events

With the pandemic accelerating adoption of virtual events, publishers have doubled down on event programming as a monetization lever. By bringing their content to life with live journalism, expert panels, and interactive workshops, publishers can sell tickets and sponsorships.

Virtual events are more scalable and accessible, allowing global audiences to participate. However, in-person events are rebounding post-pandemic and offer more opportunities for premium networking and experiences.

Industry conferences have long been a staple for B2B publishers, but more consumer media brands are now getting into the events business. Examples range from The Information‘s elite tech summits to Popsugar‘s Play/Ground festival for millennial women.

The Washington Post‘s virtual event series has attracted over 100,000 live viewers per month. The publisher enlisted a dedicated events team to handle logistics and sold multi-event sponsorship packages to brands like Bank of America and Salesforce.

To monetize with events, publishers need to:

  • Leverage star power of journalists and special guests
  • Craft unique programming that can‘t be experienced elsewhere
  • Deliver flawlessly on event logistics and technology
  • Get creative with sponsorship packages and on-site marketing
  • Repurpose event content into articles, videos, and podcasts

"Events provide a unique opportunity for publishers to convene their community and create a two-way dialogue," says Nicola Hare, MD of Reuters Events. "But to be successful commercially, the entire organization needs to be aligned, from editorial to sales to marketing."

  1. Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing has surged as a monetization strategy for publishers, especially those focused on product reviews and recommendations. By including affiliate links to retailer websites, publishers earn a commission on any resulting sales.

Commerce content has become a key revenue driver for digital natives like BuzzFeed and The Wirecutter, as well as traditional publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast. Vogue‘s ecommerce revenue grew 234% year-over-year in 2022.

However, successful affiliate marketing requires specialized skills and ongoing optimization. Publishers need to:

  • Understand SEO and how to rank for high-converting keywords
  • Build trust with honest, unbiased reviews
  • Optimize for mobile, where most affiliate traffic originates
  • Constantly update links and availability
  • Adapt to changes in retailers‘ affiliate programs

Increasingly, publishers are bringing their affiliate marketing in-house rather than relying on third-party networks. This gives them more control over the merchant mix, attribution, and customer journey.

  1. eCommerce and Product Lines

Beyond earning affiliate commissions, some media companies are cutting out the middleman by launching their own ecommerce stores and product lines.

Print publishers have sold branded merchandise for decades, but digitally-native brands are taking it to the next level. BuzzFeed‘s ecommerce division is consistently its fastest-growing segment, selling everything from spatulas to sex toys. Glossy‘s Emily Weiss leveraged the beauty publication‘s audience insights to launch Glossier, a DTC skincare and cosmetics line that‘s now valued at over $1 billion.

Other examples of publishers productizing their expertise:

  • The Hustle sells business courses through their Trends platform
  • Food52 designs and sells its own kitchenware line
  • Hodinkee‘s ecommerce arm sells luxury watches curated by its expert editors

Of course, entering the ecommerce fray is not for the faint of heart. Publishers need to invest in product development, inventory management, fulfillment, and customer service. They also risk competing with the same retailers they may rely on for advertising or affiliate revenue.

  1. Premium Tools and Resources

In addition to gated content, some publishers are monetizing by selling access to proprietary datasets, research, or tools.

B2B publishers have long sold subscriptions to specialized databases and market reports. But now B2C publishers are productizing their first-party data and technology for paying customers.

Examples include:

  • Stat from The Boston Globe sells granular sports data to teams and gamblers
  • Digiday+ members can access exclusive content, research, and an app
  • CB Insights sells predictive analytics based on their startup database

The high-priced, low-churn nature of these subscriptions makes them an attractive bet for publishers. The key is building datasets or tools that are truly proprietary and valuable to customers‘ businesses.

  1. Donations and Micropayments

The patron model is well-established in public media, but digital publishers are giving it a 21st century spin. By soliciting one-time or recurring donations from readers, publishers can generate direct revenue without a hard paywall.

The Guardian is the poster child for this strategy, with over one million paying supporters worldwide. Readers can make one-off or monthly contributions to fund the newspaper‘s journalism.

Micropayments are another variation on the theme. Startup Blendle lets readers purchase individual articles from major publishers for cents apiece. And the Brave browser allows readers to automatically tip their favorite publishers with cryptocurrency.

This model tends to work best for publishers with a strong value proposition around supporting quality journalism or a passionate community of fans. It also requires ongoing marketing to drive contributions.

  1. Programmatic Advertising

Despite the industry-wide crunch, advertising remains the bread-and-butter revenue stream for most digital publishers. And programmatic now accounts for 73% of all digital display ad spending.

Programmatic platforms automate the process of buying and selling ad inventory in real-time auctions. This has both pros and cons for publishers.

On one hand, programmatic allows publishers to monetize a broader range of ad inventory and audiences, often at higher CPMs than direct sales. Publishers can also tap into new formats like native ads, connected TV, and digital out-of-home.

On the other hand, programmatic means less control over which ads appear and what data is collected. Advertisers are increasingly demanding more transparency into place placement and performance. And privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA have made data-driven targeting more challenging.

To maximize programmatic revenues, publishers need to:

  • Optimize page speed and viewability
  • Implement header bidding to increase competition for inventory
  • Experiment with private marketplaces and programmatic guaranteed deals
  • Collect and activate first-party data
  • Invest in brand safety measures and fraud detection

"The most successful programmatic publishers are taking a holistic approach," says Stephanie Layser, VP of Advertising Technology at NewsCorp. "They‘re breaking down silos between direct and programmatic, aligning incentives, and prioritizing reader experience."

Conclusion

As the digital publishing landscape grows more complex, the most resilient media companies are pursuing diversified monetization strategies. From memberships to ecommerce, there are more paths than ever to turning attention into revenue.

However, the fundamentals still apply. Publishers need to focus on serving their audience‘s needs, building trust and loyalty, and providing unique value. That‘s the key to making any monetization strategy sustainable.

It‘s also critical to stay nimble and experiment. New technologies like AI, blockchain, and VR are opening up opportunities in personalization, micropayments, and immersive storytelling. Audio is having a moment, with podcasts and smart speakers offering new touchpoints. And first-party data is the new oil, driving targeted advertising and product development.

The publishers that will thrive in the coming years are the ones that stay audience-obsessed and adapt to these trends. If you can build a passionate community around your content, and offer them value across multiple channels and formats, the monetization will follow.