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Best Revenue Streams for Online Magazines

Vee Banionis

at Digital marketing, Grow your publishing business

I talk to a lot of magazine owners and editors. We typically talk about magazine layout issues and marketing methods. But there’s one question that always comes up:

What are the best revenue streams for an online magazine?

The answer to this question may differ a little according to genre. That said, there are some common threads we can talk about here. You can apply the parts that sound more like your own unique publication’s wheelhouse.

And best of all, it won’t cost you anything. Consider this a free, general-purpose consultation.

Display Advertising

Build it and they will come. Bigger magazines know the value of advertising. They know it is more reliable than subscriptions alone. Google Adsense is a good place to start if you want to put display ads on your magazine website, Google Adsense can drive ad click revenue for sites with higher traffic.

If you have video channel on YouTube, it can be lucrative to allow video ads in between your videos. This can also be a driver for quality, engaging videos.  There is no better motivator than a dip in attendant ad revenue to spur content engagement factors.

Display advertising is open to a self-managing advertiser marketplace that you don’t have to interact with. It’s run by Google Ads advertisers and regulated by Google. You can sit back and reap the rewards on this one. 

Display ads are one of the ways newer mags that have good traffic can reach for an easier initial revenue. Display ads just make sense for most mags in an increasingly online and content-diversified world.

Sponsorship Ads

If you’ve ever been to a sporting event, it may be hard to disassociate the sponsor from the event. Stadiums are typically named after a sponsor in the US. You can’t avoid thinking about the sponsor while watching the event. And normally, the sponsor has an immediate relation to the sport or to an athletic or outdoors brand. For native advertising, it’s all about demonstrating value to the demographics and interests of the content consumer.


Sponsorship ads

Know your numbers. Here’s where your analytics savvy will come in handy. Show prospective sponsors that valuable, higher-volume traffic is flowing through your site. This traffic is valuable only if it’s keyword/topic/demographics-relevant content for the advertiser.

You’ll need to build out these premium visibility areas where only your sponsored advertising sponsors can show ads. But you’re free to devise ways to show more than one sponsor via timed ad changes. This allows you to maximize the same spot for multiple sponsors and rack up more native advertising opportunities.

Let prospective premium-space sponsors know they were selected for quality. You wouldn’t want the worst product as a long-term sponsor usually – you’d want the best, right? So pitch to those companies who would look good as sponsors on your magazine website or digital ad space. It should feel like a match made in heaven for both parties.

Native Advertising

Native advertising

Image example from ShareThrough


If sponsorships are too much work at this stage of your magazine bandwidth, or you just want additional revenue streams, native advertising might be for you.

Native advertising is a paid media ad that has an experience that follows the natural form and function of the user experience of its surrounding environment. So on a video site, some of the videos are paid advertisements. On a magazine website, some of the articles might be paid advertorials – an informational section of your magazine to devote to a product or service of likely interest to your audience and that allows the advertiser new exposure or in-depth coverage of their product.

Even your magazine has unconventional ad space, there are managed marketplace solutions like the custom units option in the ShareThrough example above. Outbrain is another popular example that works really well for publishers in broad consumer niches or even for well-represented B2B audiences. 

It can be trickier getting enough ads for a narrowly niche B2B topic, however, so keep that in mind and be open to topic-adjacent advertisers that lean closer to the demographics and lifestyle.

Make it a customized content spotlight to go for the bigger bucks. Since native ad platforms are a marketplace, it can be challenging to filter out content you don’t want associated with your magazine. You can alternatively opt for a more customized approach if you want to get exclusive with your native advertising ethic and work together with the producer to create content tailored to your target readership. This is what many bigger magazines and super-niche mags do, especially when prestige is a concern.

This could mean creating in-depth featured product feature material that really highlights a specific product in its natural setting out in the field (wherever it’s used). It could also be about an entire small product line, so long as it is written and conceived of in a way that is highly useful to understanding the product and what it is best suited for. Native ad feature content can include tips like what to watch out for when using the product in typical environments, special tips and secrets on how best to care for the product, etc. This customized version of the native ad is probably best for that sponsor you normally work with, or would like to.

Make it an honor to be pitched to by pitching only to the best. Another benefit of native advertising, as with sponsorships, is that it can allow you to confer a sense of honor on the company you pitch the ad space to. Let them understand that you don’t pitch this spot to just any company or product. Thus it will pay to understand this prospective advertiser from top to bottom and show off your understanding of your topic area and more specifically how their products and brand fit in with that world. 

But make sure you’ve already showed them the traffic and demographics numbers first. You’ll also find that advertisers respond better to a venue that aligns well with their desired audiences or new audiences they’d like to test out for receptiveness. So an exact match isn’t always necessary, just a good match.

Offer “Freebies” as Lure to Coveted Premium Content

To be honest, selling subscriptions to a little-known magazine is hard, but it’s not impossible if the traffic numbers are there and you have visibility to new eyeballs via social media and search engines. If it seems that subscriptions are a lost cause, it’s probably just too early in the game. 


Freebie content (gifts)

Some mags may never make substantial revenue from magazines, true, but as the digital audiences mature, they are coming to accept that not everything online is free. If your mag is deep into your topic, has some authority and features top content and figures, you can sell subscriptions.

The paywall is your publishing friend. As I’ve noted on this topic elsewhere, other content players like Netflix and Amazon Prime have created more acceptance of paying for online content that matters to the consumer. The Wall Street Journal went paywall long ago and stayed that way. Few magazines are big enough to sell subscriptions as the only revenue source. It’s mainly a stream to be added to others. But if you’re not aiming for paid subscribers, you’re leaving money on the table and failing to cultivate the seeds of your future paying audience.

Hard versus soft paywall – which is better? The hard paywall is rather restrictive because it doesn’t allow consumption of free content, while a soft paywall allows a certain amount of free content each month or week. So, in this case, we can say that soft is usually the better option.

Don’t expect people to buy a subscription to your premium content without your adding value to the experience of their lives. Your content should be going above and beyond and reaching into that coveted category of awesomeness. Your audience should feel your enthusiasm and admire your fine appreciation for your topic. And your premium content should involve whatever renowned figures and brands have the attention of your target audience, via interviews, reviews, or other content that shows authority on your topics.

Sell the lifestyle. Many a branding expert knows that the happiest consumers are buying a lifestyle – piece by piece. Influencers live in the 3-dimensional world and they often use tools in the interest areas you write on. Novel branded content like hats, t-shirts for rockers, coffee mugs for code-writing workaholics reading your programming magazine, or a tote bag for the aspiring fashionistas reading your audience-specific fashion niche magazine – these are all free advertising and build mind share for your brand. It can be a nice bonus incentive to persuade your free subscribers into becoming premium content subscribers while getting free ad space as they wear your swag – all for giving your subscription a taste.

This is a great move for youth markets where the leader is followed by a large group of people for cues on what to consume. Tag your premium content subscriber in a way that confers their clued-in status to others. Don’t overlook the opportunity to make being a premium content subscriber a mark of distinction.

“Best of” Lists

Other people and other magazines in adjacent categories look to neighboring topic leaders for quality content to provide variety and add value. And you should deliver, going above and beyond the call of duty, providing insights nobody else quite does for these side niches. 


Best of and Top10 / Top20 lists

Got a fashion mag? Do a “Best of Spring Looks” list with featured products. If you run an automotive magazine, you can run a Top 20 Car Stereos best of list with detailed, multi-rated reviews for each item. It’s a great advertising opportunity for contributing car audio equipment makers if your traffic is up to speed and you can show the demographics are right for them. Monetize it simply by offering to activate the product link on their review or attach a call to action in connection with the list.

Another bonus is that this is perfect freebie material, and it allows prospective native advertisers/sponsors to get their beaks wet with a taste of your current potential traffic to their product websites! Once they’ve been on the best of list on your website, they’re more likely to want to use such kudos in their native ads and are more likely to pay for a celebratory popup on your website that links to the item on their website. A reference to your best of list is free advertising for you, using their ad dollars, by the way. This is a big win-win.

And best of all, onlookers will be awed by your growing expertise. By making this kind of hyped up best of list free to consume, you can win the respect in your topic area of prospective subscribers that just needed to see you shine a little. Each best of list should out-do the previous ones and aim for snatching up- more ad revenue. There’s no need to charge the reviewed product makers to be reviewed. You can cherry-pick the ones that made the cut and offer the ad space to them, raising your fee as traffic increases.

Upselling and Cross-Selling

Ever been to the movies and bought popcorn? Ever been to the beach and bought an iced drink from the bar? Customer retention management (CRM) is a central aspect of doing business as a magazine because it’s all about cross-selling to existing audience members on related content and items, or up-selling from a free subscription to a paid subscription for premium content. It means, basically, that you care about keeping your customers and growing them into being more committed and avid customers of new and different offerings based upon their current or previous experiences with your brand.


Cross-selling

Use cross and up-selling to add value

Using CRM techniques that aim to add value to an ongoing experience is a smarter way to up-sell and cross-sell. It allows you to turn those on-the-fence free content subscribers into paying premium content subscribers and grow their buying habits as they situate your brand into their lives in a way that “works”. So CRM should always be about lifestyle enhancement, enticement to the 2.0 version of who the customer would like to upgrade themselves into. 

Upgrading the subscription should amount to a symbolic upgrade in some way, a choice to be more and do something beyond what they had been doing – to be a part of something bigger.

Winning? Duplicate Your Own Success Formula!

A magazine for cutting edge music might be read by some of the same people as who would read a magazine about guitar playing or social issues from a grassroots level. Having two magazines can be a great way to capture more audience once you’ve built out the first and have market share established.

Once your mag is going strong, should you branch out?

Other mediums? Adjacent topics or sub-genres? Could your current audience sustain a related theme magazine of its own? How about video content? Does your magazine only cater to men? Why not formulate one for the women in their lives and get both loving your brand? Supporting a family lifestyle can often mean becoming the brand of the family and extended clan.

Once you’ve got lots of useful data on your current customers, you’re going to know a lot more about correlated interests based on demographics and intent. This is the customer profile. Obviously, you may have more than one, but regardless of gender, a single profile is usually inclusive enough to factor in gender differences. Sometimes, it makes sense to divide them up further, however, or focus on a single gender identification and lifestyle.

Mastering the audience profiles is going to prove to be key. It allows you to move on to sell them new things you know they would love, especially if you pointed out the need and provided the solution. But to get to that point of branching out with new offerings, you will need to have fully learned your core audience profile and all the nuances and flavors that may be right on the margins, waiting to be drawn in and included.

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