‘How can I make money in media, but without selling ad space?’ — a common question asked by publishers across the globe. 

For some publications, putting advertising on their site just isn’t the right fit for the brand, while others are seeing low click-through-rates thanks to readers actively using ad blockers. Is there another way to turn a profit, though?


In fact, here are three ways to turn publishing into profit, sans-advertising:

1. Merchandising

While media operations usually see content as the product they offer, merchandising is always an option for more revenue. Each publication is a brand of its own and there is an opportunity to capitalise on that, if brands want to.

Who has taken this approach?

Take The New York Times as an example. The American daily newspaper is well-known across the globe and, although they have other revenue streams, they also sell NYT merch.

They aren’t selling back editions of their newspaper either — they’re selling books, apparel, bags and prints; items relevant to their readership.

Why take this approach?

If you’ve got a strong brand and dedicated followers, merchandising sales can become a significant source of income. Buyers essentially act as moving billboards, showcasing your brand and encouraging others to check out your content.

When you go the merchandise route, the items you sell “become tribal symbols linked with cultural identity”, according to Fatherly CEO Mark Rothman.

2. Paywalls

Paywalls are the most popular form of revenue gain (outside of advertising) in the media industry. A paywall is a feature of a website that requires users to pay in order to access the site’s content. The journalistic content is limited so that only those who subscribe to the site, or pay for access, can read the article.

There are three types of paywalls:
  • Soft paywalls: Some content can be accessed free of charge. Summaries are also usually available without payment, but full access to the site requires a subscription.
  • Metered paywalls: A certain number of articles can be read free of charge. Once those articles have been read, subscription to the site is required.
  • Hard paywalls: No content can be viewed without payment. Users are immediately prompted to pay in order to view, read or listen to an article.

Who has taken this approach? 

Across the globe, numerous big-name publications have taken this approach, including Financial Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, Conde Nast, as well as local sites such as Business Day.

It’s not only the big players that are implementing paywalls — smaller, niche publications have also started experimenting with them too.

Why take this approach?

Paywalls can be a great revenue source, but only if the content you are producing doesn’t appear elsewhere. For example, the paywall model is a great choice for niche content sites, as the chances of audiences finding that content elsewhere (free of charge) is unlikely.

However, paywalls can also work for mainstream sites as well — you just have to ensure that your content offers a unique take or covers the topic in more depth than other, similar stories.

Readers are only likely to become subscribers if they feel your content is worth paying for. Any content labelled as being ‘premium’ or ‘exclusive’ is likely to draw attention and create intrigue, so you best be sure to deliver!

3. Consumer donations

The consumer donation model is similar to the paywall model in terms of technology required, but with one major difference: Readers can choose to donate — or not.

This model initially made waves in the graphic community, with free image sites asking visitors to donate to the creator if they felt inclined. If it can work for graphic sites, why not for content sites?

Who has taken this approach? 

Well, for starters — media update has! We don’t offer any type of advertorials or paid-for content, and we wanted to make sure that our content is accessible to everyone in the media, marketing, PR and social industries.

Running a publication is a costly venture and we want to continue to be able to do that for as long as possible. If you’d like to take a look at our donation model, or if you’d like to make a donation, click on the ‘Contribute’ tab in the navigation bar and select ‘Donate to MU’.

Why take this approach?

If advertising doesn’t fit your brand and you don’t want to force people to pay for content (such as through paywalls), why not go the altruistic route?

Asking readers to donate encourages a relationship based on appreciation for quality content. If readers don’t think it’s worth paying for, they don’t have to pay. However, when readers do feel like the content is top-notch and they want to donate, they can.

What other ways do you think publishers can turn a profit without selling ad space? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Thanks to the rise of ad blockers, paywalls and subscriptions have become commonplace for media sites — but How much do media subscriptions actually cost? Check out our article to find out!