How Will You Earn Revenue?

Lisa Williams, INN’s former director of digital engagement, wrote this in 2015 for NetNewsCheck, which allowed INN to republish it. The following version is slightly updated.

Online businesses – and I include in this any organization that has to bring money in the door to keep the lights on – can be divided roughly (okay, very roughly) into two types:

  • Pageview based businesses
  • Conversion businesses

Those of us in the media industry understand pageview-based business models: create content that a lot of people want to look at, and then make money running ads against it.

However, most web-based businesses are conversion businesses: give something away in the hope that some small fraction of the visitors to a site will “convert” – to being members, donors, customers, ticket holders at an event – you name it.

There’s a very simple test to figure out which of these two kinds of business you are. Ask yourself this question: “If I doubled my traffic, would my revenue double?” If the answer is “not even close,” you’re probably a conversion business. You may also breathe a sigh of relief at opting out of the pageviews arms race, leaving it to folks like Vox and Buzzfeed.

But now that you know you’re not in the race for pageviews – a race to the bottom, since the value of those pageviews are going down every year – are you doing what conversion businesses must do to grow and be sustainable?

In my world, too often, there’s a disconnect between what nonprofit news organizations see as the product – publishing journalistic work online – and revenue – how the organization brings in money to pay salaries, rent and the light bill.

How about we work toward reconnecting those things?

Take a look at any article page on your site and ask yourself: what am I asking visitors to this page to do besides read, watch or listen? Maybe you’ll notice that you’re asking them to share a link on Facebook, or follow your work on Twitter or leave a comment.

When visitors do the things you’re asking them to do, does your organization become more sustainable in the long term? How about asking them to cross the line from being consumers to being supporters of your work?

Successful organizations based on a conversion business model know that not every visitor will “convert” to a supporter, member, donor or customer right away (in fact, only a tiny fraction of visitors ever will – which means that you can’t ignore traffic growth just because you’ve opted out of the pageviews arms race). That’s why so many of them prioritize asking visitors to sign up for email newsletters instead of trying to get them to be Facebook or Twitter followers.

Why? Email is still king when it comes to conversion. People are much more likely to “convert” – become a donor, buy a ticket to an event you’re running, or support a Kickstarter – from a message they see in their inbox than from looking at a Web page in their browser or seeing a call to action on a mobile device.

So most effective conversion-based organizations think through their approach to their audience with a mix of direct calls to action (“Support our Kickstarter!” or “RSVP for our exclusive event!”) and asking visitors to sign up for email newsletters.

Want to steer your news organization in the direction of greater sustainability? Take a look at any page on your site – and resolve to ask a visitor to do just one more thing besides read, watch or listen.