All The Ways To Make Money In Media Without Ads

Illustration courtesy of Chloe Giroux

It turns out there are a lot of ways.

At a time when Google, Facebook and Amazon capture up to 70% of all ad dollars generated in the US and newspapers across the country have shed half their journalism jobs since 2008, you may think only a masochist would make a career in ad-supported media right now. But every period of creative destruction provides a wellspring of opportunity for entrepreneurs with passion, a point of view on the world and a capacity to embrace uncertainty.

I’ve worked in media for nearly 20 years. I was on the founding team at Thrillist, started Fatherly, and have invested and advised a dozen other media brands big and small.

To benefit anyone trying to build a content business, I’ve compiled a list of successful revenue models. I deliberately left out advertising models because I want to highlight what else is out there in a world where a predictable advertising business is increasingly out of reach for all but the largest platform providers.

What’s remarkable about this list is the sheer range of options. At the time of this writing, I’ve counted 25+ different revenue streams that can support a content-focused business. Hopefully, this list serves as a primer for wherever you are in your entrepreneurial journey.

One characteristic of healthy media companies is that they can monetize each piece of content three times. For most web publishers, this means some configuration of not just advertising but also affiliate programs, licensing, and IP sales. What revenue model you choose and how to operationalize each approach is a question that you can expect to revisit every six months as your company scales and new vendors enter the market.

For the sake of readability, I’ve attempted to bucket each of these ideas into a category. However, as in life, nothing ever fits neatly into one bucket, so you may notice instances in which several categories may apply. Lastly, I consider this to be a working document, so if you have any feedback, please write to me, and I’ll make sure to update on an on-going basis.

1) Commerce: Broadly defined in this context as any model in which a content creator profits from driving transactional behavior rather than merely stoking an intent to buy.

  • Affiliate: A marketer provides a referral fee, generally ranging from 5% to 20%, as a reward for direct sales attributed to the publisher. Publishers can improve their rev share with volume and work directly with a marketer, instead of through an intermediary like Skimlinks. Retailers like Amazon may also include bounties for driving traffic that ultimately lead to a sale after a period of 28-days. Example: Wirecutter

2) On-Going Subscriptions: Whether you’re the NYT or an independent journalist looking to do your best Ben Thompson impression, it’s a boom time for subscriptions as consumers gravitate to more niche content and innovation abounds around the “picks and axes” powering the rush to recurring revenue content businesses. Whether it’s through bundling several adjacent publishers into a single subscription (e.g., the Everything bundle) or deploying a one-subscription-to-rule-them-all approach (Scroll or Apple News), the UX around subscriptions has become as easy as pushing the button on the side of your phone or by simply just looking at your phone.

  • Paywall for bundled content: Represents various ways of rationalizing a subscription cost by offering original, licensed, and UGC content. Example: Medium

3) Production: Unlike subscriptions, in which the consumer pays for content, the production category refers to creators selling their content services to an enterprise customer.

  • Premium: Longer form or episodic content inspired by a brand’s identity or its campaign’s theme. While a brand typically funds this, ownership may vary and exceptional content can yield additional revenue from licensing or other commercial applications of the intellectual property. Example:

4) Selling to the Enterprise: Defined here as selling content products and services to large corporate (1,000+ employee) customers in which the organization is the customer, usually as part of a service-level agreement. Typical of B2B, this process involves more stakeholders and longer decision cycles offset by the promise of stable revenue and higher returns on invested effort.

  • Classes/Workshops: Content-as-a-service to organizations, generally as part of L&D, HR, and D&I initiatives. Popular current varieties of this type of business include content companies providing wellness information for overworked employees or mass upskilling and retraining from education publishers to a global workforce. Example: Thrive Global

5) Licensing: One of the more potent ways to quantify your media brand’s value is by how much the market would pay to be associated with your content. While advertisers may pay for adjacency, licensing as a business model is a more wholesale judgment on the value of what you produce and the appeal of past actions, design decisions and general brand reputation over time.

  • Rights: On the low end this encompasses reprints and e-prints, while the high end involves richer packages with annual payments to the original IP owner. Example: Authentic Brands

6) Live/Virtual Experiences: Before COVID-19, the global events industry was on pace to grow to $2.3 trillion by 2026, up from $1.1 trillion in 2018. While the pandemic will inevitably stunt that growth, virtual events are expected to grow to $774 billion by 2030, up from $78 billion, according to SF-based Grand View Research. In either case, events are a natural expression of content businesses as consumers look for community and real-time access to creators and their ideas.

  • Touring: Applying the concert model in which content creators take to the road for a multi-venue tour with revenue from ticket sales, concessions, merchandise and possible IP extensions such as documentaries and specials capturing the road magic. Example: Pop-Up Magazine

Notice anything missing? Have a better example that you’d like to share? Let me know at

Co-Founder, CEO at Fatherly

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