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Time to Diversify? Why publishers must expand their revenue streams beyond the paywall

Analysis of reader revenue data

Subscription models play an important role in many publishers’ revenue strategies. However, with research suggesting that subscription growth could be nearing its peak, media organizations must look beyond the paywall in search of new revenue-generating opportunities.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of options. From advertising and affiliate marketing to events and data monetization, we explore some of the ways you can diversify your revenue streams and achieve sustainable growth in a rapidly changing industry.

The case for diversification

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. It might be the premise of investing, but the logic applies here. Relying solely on one revenue stream in an evolving media landscape is both risky and unsustainable. An economic downturn, unpredictable shifts in ad spend, changing algorithms, or a dramatic shift in consumer behavior can drastically affect your revenue, leaving you financially vulnerable.

To weather the storms of change and thrive in this competitive market, publishers must spread their revenue sources across multiple channels. This mitigates risk, increases financial stability and builds resilience against market fluctuations. But diversification isn’t merely a defensive strategy; it can also help your business unlock new growth opportunities and generate more revenue.

Building diverse revenue streams has always been important, but with research indicating that subscription growth rates may be starting to plateau, it’s more vital than ever. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023, the average proportion of people making payments to any online news remained at 17% for the second year in a row. It also reveals that a significant portion of subscribers (around 23%) are either canceling subscriptions or negotiating lower prices. As the report points out, this inevitably raises questions about whether we may have reached the peak of the subscription trend.

While subscriptions are likely to remain a significant source of income for publishers, statistics like these underline the urgent need for media organizations to explore alternative revenue streams that complement, rather than replace, the paywall.

Six strategies to diversify your revenue streams

From affiliate marketing to webinars and data monetization, there are plenty of ways publishers can cultivate more revenue streams. Here are just some of the strategies you might want to consider when building a diverse revenue model:

1. Advertising and sponsorships

Unsurprisingly, advertising is still a major revenue source for publishers. In a report by Digiday, 58% of publishers said they expect advertising to account for 41% or more of their annual revenue next year. However, even if you already have an active advertising program, there may still be opportunities to optimize ad revenue.

By embracing a variety of formats including display ads, native advertising, video ads and in-text links, you can minimize ad fatigue and open up new revenue channels. Additionally, partnering with sponsors for branded content or events can create mutually beneficial relationships that also drive revenue and engagement.

2. E-commerce and affiliate marketing

As many publishers will testify, e-commerce and affiliate marketing is one of the easiest ways to diversify your earnings. By curating and promoting relevant products or services on your online platforms, you can earn commission on sales or leads generated through your affiliate links. This strategy not only diversifies your revenue streams but also enhances the reader experience by providing seamless access to recommended products or services.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to research by Skimlinks, UK publisher revenue from e-commerce rose by 80% between 2020 to 2022. Meanwhile, the value of purchases made through these affiliate links grew by 36% and affiliate traffic increased by 41%. The revenue potential for publishers is huge; just be careful not to turn your platform into one long sales pitch – reader value should always be a priority.

3. Events, conferences and webinars

Hosting events, conferences, and webinars is another revenue stream that many publishers are tapping into. For example, global media and hospitality company TimeOut holds its popular TimeOut Markets in various cities across the globe. The events bring together the best chefs, drinks and cultural experiences based on Time Out’s editorial curation, effectively bringing the brand “to life”.

Whatever form they take, these types of gatherings are often an ideal opportunity to increase newsletter subscriptions, upgrade readers to paid subscriptions, and repurpose existing content. They also provide valuable networking opportunities for attendees, while offering sponsors exposure to a highly targeted audience.

Whether virtual or in-person, events and webinars can be a great option if you want to monetize your organization’s expertise, develop new revenue channels, build brand awareness, and foster community engagement.

4. Voluntary donations and crowdfunding

Some publishers have successfully implemented donation-based models or crowdfunding campaigns to supplement their revenue. By appealing to their audience’s support and goodwill, they’ve been able to fund specific projects, investigative journalism, or community initiatives.

Of course, asking readers to make a voluntary contribution isn’t a new initiative – The Guardian newspaper introduced its donation model back in 2016. As of 2023, around 1.1 million readers either donate or subscribe to its digital products, while 104,000 people subscribe to its newspapers and The Guardian weekly magazine.

Speaking at the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) summit last year, Mylene Sylvestre, Publishing Director at Guardian News & Media Ltd, said: “The bulk of our supporters are readers who donate what they can afford. And they donate to The Guardian due to the emotional connect they have with the brands”. However, with an overall reach of 81 million unique monthly visitors globally, Sylvestre believes they “have huge potential to convert more readers into paid supporters.”

5. Leveraging digital content

Publishers are increasingly looking for new and innovative ways to monetize their existing content. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in companies repurposing their content and selling digital products like e-books or online courses to generate passive income. As well as establishing your expertise in the industry, these types of products can be sold repeatedly without additional production costs.

And of course, we can’t talk about digital content without mentioning podcasts! As many publishers have already found, digital audio is an effective way to reach new audiences and generate advertising revenue from existing content. According to a recent report, podcast ad spending continued to rise in the first three months of 2024, increasing by 39% year-over-year.

6. Data monetization

With Google set to phase out third-party cookies by the end of 2024, first-party data has become the holy grail of marketing. As a publisher, your in-depth understanding of niche segments of your audience and their preferences is gold dust for advertisers. By sharing these compelling audience segments with advertisers, you can unlock the hidden value in your data and add another revenue stream to your armory.

With monetization opportunities like this, it’s perhaps no surprise that 75% of publishers surveyed by Google said they were “optimistic about how privacy changes will impact their relationships with media buyers.”

We’ll be sharing more insights on how media companies can drive revenue and enjoy long-term growth at our conferences on October 1 in Berlin, Germany and October 9 in Austin, USA.  Join our expert panel as they explore how successful businesses thrive through building diversified revenue models.  Book your ticket here.

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