How to monetize a news website like a media mogul header

Through my daily dealings with the tier-1 global publishers, I have a rare and amazing opportunity to get a peek behind the scenes and learn from the best. In this post I’d like to help news websites that aren’t maximizing the full breadth of monetization options at their disposal – do just that. 

Here goes!

First and foremost – add an audio version of your news content

Audio is where readers are now. 

Thanks to constant advancements in voice technology that largely powers it through text-to-speech (TTS) software, audio has completely changed the way people consume content these days. It adds a new dimension of convenience and a sense of intimacy and a one-on-one connection that no other medium can boast with. 

That’s why audio is appealing on all sides of the media ecosystem. 

For many publishers of all shapes and sizes, audio is becoming a brand new revenue stream. 

For advertisers and marketers, it’s a chance to close the gaps in the customer journey and be present at various touchpoints, especially where looking at a screen is not an option. 

For users, it’s a highly accessible medium because they rarely have the time or patience to read through a full news article. Having a listening option provides content consumption in the most natural and intuitive way, at a time and place of their choosing. 

There are quite a few reasons why offering a listening experience works like a charm on a news website, starting with 

  • Convenience – more or less, everything is done on the go, which is why audio content like audio articles and short-form briefings via smart speakers (along with the mega-popular podcasts) are rising in popularity. We’re living in the age of efficiency and if people can multitask like getting their news updates audibly while working on a spreadsheet, driving, or preparing a meal – they will. In turn, it also means that audio is:
  • More accessible – your audience can listen to your articles on a wide range of devices, including smart speakers, smartphones, car speakers, and other audio distribution channels, wherever and whenever they want. Add to the fact that our collective attention span seems to be continuously decreasing, which makes it hard to keep visitors’ eyes peeled to the entire news article. 
  • Visual saturation – as more than half of Gen Z and Millennials say there is too much visual stimulation. Screen exhaustion is real, and audiences are increasingly moving away from it – right into audio’s lap.

Now, on to the monetization aspect

First, you need a text to speech solution that embeds a simple audio player and converts text into natural-sounding speech with multiple languages available. You can see how it looks (in its more unassuming version) at the top of this post but it can also look like this:

TrinityAudio AI text to speech solution

with an additional monetization opportunity (besides the one I’m about to explain) through in-player ad space. 

Then, the audio player monetizes content through the process of programmatic audio advertising – automated selling and insertion of ads. These ads are based on your audience’s behavior and characteristics, placed before, during and/or after content (mostly the first two) by leveraging a wide range of data and insights. 

As a result, advertisers get better targeting, measurement, and retargeting to execute campaigns with great efficiency while your former readers get more contextually relevant content.

Another aspect of audio content monetization is content aggregation and recommendation through a separate player/unit. Thanks to content technology (ConTech), you can also simultaneously increase engagement via top trending and related content based on continuous learning of listeners’ behavior. As a result, they will spend more time on-site and explore more content while browsing, satisfying their appetite for listening to content.

You can preview the entire ecosystem here, from the way audio ads work through the audio player to the content aggregation and recommendation unit in the upper right corner.

Do audio ads work, though?

Research has shown that:

  • people find audio ads less intrusive as opposed to their TV, online, print, and social media versions. 
  • Nielsen found out that audio ads are more than 2x as likely to initiate purchase intent and information intent than display ads, also driving 24% higher recall. 
  • Another study focusing on ad receptivity uncovered that listeners are 35% more open to ads and particularly receptive when relaxed and focused in comparison to viewers. Even Generation X showed a 32% higher receptivity to audio ads than video ads.

Here’s what’s so great about TTS in relation to news sites which not many are aware of: 

its ability to deliver a listening experience specifically tailored to news-oriented content

At Trinity Audio, we use a news-reading voice called Newscaster which selectively emphasizes certain words in a sentence – just as a real newscaster would. It is specially designed by AWS Polly as a long-form speaking style that allows it to highlight particular syllables instead of pronouncing them all equally. 

With audio advertising constantly growing and the latest text-to-speech developments, adding an audio option to your news articles as one of the new/alternative ways to monetize is both easy and what audiences want these days. 

By providing an easier and more efficient way to consume content (which you can then offer beyond your website via various devices such as smartphones, smart speakers, cars, and so on), you’ll be meeting the needs of a growing audience of listeners and adding to their experience.

Next, put your content behind a (pay)wall

Because of the continued decline in ad revenues (another sign of visual saturation), top players in the publishing industry around the globe have been increasingly favoring direct reader revenue models:

  • Subscription
  • Membership
  • Donation
  • Micropayment

Now, if you’re thinking it’s going to be a pain in the behind to convince people to pay for digital content, I have some good news. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020, numerous markets have registered increases in payments for digital news, from a boost of four percent in the United States to a total of 20% of paying audience to eight percent in Norway to a total of 42%. 

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020

In the wake of the pandemic, US publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic reported substantial increases in digital subscriptions while UK’s The Guardian saw a boost to the numbers of contributors. 

While it is still early to predict the exact impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the news industry, there are already outlines of rapid changes in business models designed to counter advertising and adblock revenue losses. 

The report highlights the “distinctiveness and quality of the content” as the most important factor for those who subscribe. People also subscribe due to the lack of high-quality free news, where paywalls are partly perceived as a gateway to exclusive and quality content worth paying for, the convenience of user experience, fondness for particular journalists, and plain good deals and benefits, among other things. 

What exact model works best depends on the specifics of you, the publisher: your news niche and audience. Some like The Guardian combine free stuff with donations, which requires a fair share of convincing. Here’s how they do it:

 The Guardian

For what it’s worth, numbers show that a subscription-based business model is the prime driver of growth. However, you can’t just slap a paywall on your content and call it a day. 

Despite the likes of Netflix and Spotify accustoming people to paying for digital content (one of the lesser reasons behind the growth of payments), there are certain logistical and strategic challenges. These pertain to a shift from advertising revenue to reader revenue strategies, having a proper tech stack, and enough first-party data to extract clean, easily accessible, and actionable insights. 

As an example, the Financial Times has a dedicated analytics tool that helps it identify correlations among metrics of engagement like time spent on a page, the number of articles read, and others in order to better understand the impact of its content and how audiences are engaging with it. In other words – they are trying to determine the user’s inclination to pay. 

Then, there’s the issue of leaky paywalls. Persistent users have figured out multiple ways to circumvent them, with as much as 75% of paywalls susceptible to a bypass with fairly simple techniques like cookie clearing, using incognito modes, or multiple browsers. So, as an important step in the subscription funnel, registration walls have registered (pun intended) a spike in interest from the publishing industry. 

Also known as regwalls, these are your standard prompts to users to create a free account on a website in order to gain access to content, no payment required. Here’s how a regwall looks like on one of The Drum’s articles:

The Drum

As many publishers lay the groundwork to transition from third-party to first-party data and relieve the pressure on ad revenue, they are turning to registration walls to quickly identify most loyal and engaged visitors. Another major benefit is the ability to merge all user data across different browsers, devices, and platforms. 

So how do registration walls help monetize news websites?

By getting a more holistic view of the user’s behavior and visits based on the first-party data gathered, you can create more engaging experiences. These can then be used to better engage users that drive the majority of traffic and who are far more likely to convert to long-term subscribers. 83% of consumers are open to sharing their data in return for a personalized experience so amassing first-party data is key.

Be smart about sponsored content

There is only a small amount of publicly funded digital news publishers who can afford to keep their newsroom clear of sponsored content. The rest has to find a way to financially support themselves while bringing important and revenue-pumping stories to their audiences, which is where branded content and advertorials packaged in the form of native advertising come into play.

If implemented properly, sponsored content has immense potential to make money and help publishers protect their businesses, while also bringing value to readers.

But what is meant by ‘properly’? 

Readers are more and more sophisticated and they require contextual relevance. That and the fact that there has been an onslaught of poorly executed influencer and brand marketing, both in terms of frequency and relevancy, means paid articles can easily backfire. The space is getting more and more saturated, and users are becoming much less likely to convert on content that feels forced and/or inauthentic.

The key is to promote without turning into phony and salesy infomercials, which requires experienced copywriters with high writing skills who can generate believable and persuasive content. 

In many cases, brands and marketing agencies themselves will supply the text which might require additional touches from your editor to fit into the ongoing narrative of your publication. 

To avoid readers’ backlash and maintain your reputation, always mark paid articles with tags that clearly label its sponsored side – “advertisement”, “promoted/sponsored content”, “word/news from our partners”, etc. Here’s how Adweek does it:

Adweek advertisement

This method of monetization is used by some of the most reputable newsrooms and legacy publishers, which means someone’s doing something right, right?

Get back to low-tech roots and focus on the newsletter

On top of what I’m witnessing directly I’ll once again, refer to the comprehensive ​Reuters Institute Digital News Report​ (if those guys don’t know news, I don’t know who does) that shows a significant increase in the number of email newsletters in recent years, both by ‘legacy’ print and newer digital media publishers. Plus, email is considered a vital tool for reducing churn (along with mobile alerts and audio content) due to its ability to form habits and loyalty. 

But are people actually reading them?

It turns out – very much so. 

  • The most popular news emails can get open rates of up to 80%, which is an unreal percentage considering most industries hover around the 20-something % mark in terms of the average open rate. 
  • Furthermore, email is popular with two groups of news lovers: 
    • those who show high interest and have a high frequency of access throughout the day
    • daily briefers who tend to brush up on news at specific times each day. 
  • Another bonus is high popularity of newsletters in the 45+ demographic. That being said, you can forget about engaging casual readers as they prefer channels where the news ‘comes to them’ like social media or TV. 

How to make money off news newsletters? 

  • Treat them as an editorial product, complete with a personal touch and an informal tone, to overcome the format’s restrictions. That way, it becomes more of a journalistic output and much more than just a collection of automated links. The idea is to guide the readers with curation through the daily happenings.
  • Naturally, you can also monetize your email campaigns with a delicate touch of banner ads and affiliate links, if that makes sense for you.
  • In some instances, you might even create an individual paid subscription email list for exclusive offers and tips. 

That being said, email news can’t be considered a silver bullet solution. Reuters’ data shows that US and Belgian publishers get around four in ten (37%) digital or joint digital/print subscribers to use email newsletters but the levels are much lower for their Nordic peers, despite equally high levels of paying for news.

Reuters’ data shows that US and Belgian publishers get around four in ten (37%) digital or joint digital/print subscribers to use email newsletters but the levels are much lower for their Nordic peers, despite equally high levels of paying for news.

Furthermore, email isn’t that big of a deal, especially to the younger population as it appeals mostly to older readers. Still, it dutifully fulfills its role as one of the most important tools for publishers to create a habit and entice the type of customers who are likely to be monetized through subscription or other paid models. 

Final thoughts

Hopefully, I’ve given you some food for thought on how to monetize a news website like the big sharks do and earn more money. Before you settle on a particular method, identify trends and other interests your readership has and extract as much data on it as you can. This data can be extremely valuable down the road, both for growing your website and knowing what types of monetization will work best.

You must be ruthless in your focus on your readers, building engagement and loyalty at every corner. Traffic in the past few months shows us that the public is hungrier than ever for high-quality news and journalism. The challenge is to maximize the potential that bears.


Make sure you’re following me on Twitter for ongoing updates, tips, and industry takeaways!