I’m going to divide up the success model into smaller chunks that could be reviewed separately.
A successful and profitable business venture of digital publication requires two main elements:
- A business model that allows for monetization
In terms of traffic, the main reason people visit websites in the first place is content. This could include different forms:
- Blog posts
- Educational articles
- A membership platform, forum, or another engagement engine
- Research studies
- Podcast episodes
That said, why would people subscribe to or even browse a website regularly in order to facilitate profitability in the long run?
Let’s Talk About Revenue
“Revenue” is a subjective term — you can generate a few cents from every view but that won’t make you a millionaire.
Most publishers we work with supplement their traffic with paid ads. And some entirely rely on the so-called “traffic arbitrage”, purchasing traffic from one place and displaying ads on their site.
There are different considerations determining the revenue per visitor:
- Some ad networks perform better than others.
- Different banner sizes have varying success rates.
- Ongoing traffic can unlock opportunities (contracts with networks that set minimum traffic constraints).
- Domain authority/relevancy/buying history can improve your stats.
- Advertisers pay differently for specific locations (geographical) and devices (plus Android vs. iOS varies).
- Some page layouts are more optimal and convert better than others.
- The number of ads and their positioning will determine the success of your campaigns.
If you squeeze too many ads, your visitors will bounce. Placing just an ad or two won’t make a difference.
Successful publishers craft optimal layouts that scale.
Homepages are often not the most profitable page publishers monetize.
Except for long pages with infinite scrolls targeting loyal readers, well-positioned brands with returning customers and solid SEO, AND strategic partnerships for selling ad units to certain partners (which is much more profitable than adding an AdWords or DFP ad unit someplace).
For maximum impact, publishers want to increase the duration of a reader on the site. This results in more page views, generating more ad impressions as a result.
Case in Point
A few of our publishers generate an average of 15 page views per user session, i.e. every visitor scrolls through over a dozen articles once they hit the site. If they view 2–3 ads per page, this makes 3–5 cents on mobile or up to 10 cents on desktop with a layout injecting sidebar ads or other static ads near the bottom of the screen.
Of course, this is an approximation. Some are less successful and some make double that. But using this sample:
- You can bring in 3–5 dollars for every 100 users.
- A 100K monthly visitors can generate $3K – $5K on mobile.
- 1M+ gets you closer to half a million in ad revenue per year.
Several magazines we work with that utilize traffic arbitrage strategies generate hundreds of millions of monthly page views.
Their main strategy is generating more revenue per session than the traffic they pay for.
For instance, if they make $0.04 per session and pay about $0.03 per click, this is one cent in revenue per visitor. 1 cent doesn’t sound exciting for the entire duration of a user’s session. But you can easily scale to 200M views with the right tech architecture and optimal layouts.
Therefore, if an average session is about 10 pageviews, 20M sessions × 1 cent is $200,000 in monthly revenue.
Of course, it always takes time to refine your audience and find a profitable way to scale. And you still need to pay salaries, hosting, ongoing development, content development, and PPC management.
A couple of publishers we work with generate about 10% of that traffic with organic traffic. It’s not too far-fetched with high-quality content and building a reputable brand.
It comes down to market need and penetration.
Finding The Right Business Model for Your Digital Publication
There are several considerations that would tailor your content strategy toward the right business model:
- What is your target market?
- What is the estimated volume of readers (locally or worldwide) that would benefit from a given online resource on the subject?
- Which are the pain points of your target viewers?
- How does the competitive space look like?
- Are there other relevant content approaches which would be unique and cater to the needs of visitors who would prefer consuming content in a different way (video, audio, visually)?
The overly saturated markets are harder to penetrate due to the large volume of digital publishers and magazines that have already covered most of the educational aspects. However, the number of potential readers is also higher, which hides promising opportunities in the future.
Very niche markets may have a limited number of prospects who would enjoy your content. The traffic will be low and won’t allow for advertisement profit or any other revenue model that depends on large audiences.
However, there are other monetization opportunities related to consulting or reselling high-end services and products for that niche audience (especially for B2B markets).
Here’s an actionable approach by Moz on keyword valuation and estimates:
Innovating Your Content
There are also ways to penetrate an existing market by innovating in terms of content. If your field of interest is flooded by magazines writing brief articles of 500-words each, consider crafting long-form content that is more detailed and discusses problems in depth.
Otherwise, if everyone aims for large studies and whitepapers online, think about a “Quick tip of the day” format that would cater to busy readers who want to assimilate content one step at a time.
Textual content-driven competitors could also be tackled using other formats such as YouTube videos, webinars, podcasts or other areas that aren’t as widely used. Maybe your target market is busy and travels a lot and would benefit from subscribing to a podcast or a video course that they can watch at the airport or listen to while driving to a conference?
Google Analytics breaks down incoming traffic in four main actionable categories:
- Organic search
- Social traffic
- Referral traffic
- Direct visits
A. Organic Search
Organic visitors come through search engines such as Google or Bing. That’s where SEO comes into play as your goal is identifying the pain points of your customers, what are they looking up online while figuring out how to position yourself among the first results online.
The current utilization of Google is quite proactive, hence the great potential for landing ongoing traffic through search engines:
Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average (visualize them here), which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.
Generally, when planning for content after analyzing the target audience and their needs, focusing on certain keywords is an important part of the process. Most people target short keywords (1–2 words) in hopes that customers would look for these and land on their website.
However, shorter keywords are harder to rank for. There are likely tens of millions of results for most combinations (if not over 100M) and customers are aware of the polluted space with inefficient results. One of the key strategies nowadays is focusing on long-tail keywords:
Case in Point
An example being the real estate space, if you’re looking for a flat in New York, you may fail to filter the right results as going for “NY flat”. Possible combinations that may yield better results would be:
- “Two bedroom apartment in Manhattan”
- “Cheap apartment rentals New York City”
- “How can I find a one bedroom flat in the Brooklyn area”
- “What are the best rental websites for New York City”
Note the different variants that you could use while looking for the very same thing. When catering to the customer’s needs and the plenty of targeted options, the ranking opportunity is far more rewarding and will still give precedence to your results in the long term for people looking for shorter key phrases.
That comes in combination with writing high-quality content on relevant subjects and helping out with relevant results.
With regards to high-quality content and professional content marketing, Neil Patel’s Advanced Guide to Content Marketing is a perfect go-to resource (among his thousands of blog posts and answers here on Quora as well).
B. Social Traffic
Social traffic is all incoming traffic from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and other social networks where tens of millions of potential users may browse.
When reviewing your target market and defining buyer personas for your ideal readers, you can evaluate the most promising social networks for your type of business. B2C products are often best promoted on Facebook while more conservative niche resources may be best suited for LinkedIn.
If you have the time and resources to maintain pages or groups on several channels, go for it. There are plenty of studies about different niches and what are the best promotional mediums for them – here’s one targeting 2800 marketers in 2014 and what they say:
Other Formulas That Work
Other than that you can leverage your targeted and valuable content and share it on your feed, on your brand, website and in other relevant groups online. Be careful about spamming – no one likes intruders joining a community and posting a myriad of self-promotional links.
There are different formulas that work but participating for a few weeks with comments and other helpful resources first would be highly beneficial and warm up the mood. Then, you can apply the 80–20 rule by posting several relevant and helpful sources from other websites and pitch one of your stories in-between.
Social traffic can be utilized through partnerships with other entrepreneurs running blogs or business websites. You can do cross-promotions and pitch content in each others’ groups in order to share and grow your traffic accordingly.
C. Referral Traffic
Referral traffic is quite important as well since it revolves around links to your website in other online resources. Since Ramit Sethi has already joined the conversation here, I’ll post one of his charts from How to get 150,000 people to read your blog in 1 week:
While numbers may massively vary as Ramit has noted himself, the importance of crafting outstanding content is indisputable. This branches off into two different areas:
- Your own content
- Pitching other sources for guest posts
When you land publications of your content in other magazines and digital publications, this will also help with your referral traffic. However, there’s another important aspect that may very well help out.
Backlinks are one of the key trust factors that Google takes into account when ranking results for a Google Search. Content quality, length, and potential usefulness for customers is also super important. But receiving trustworthy links back to your piece is a testimonial for quality as high-profile sites would not accept random and fishy links if they want to continue maintaining a good volume of traffic.
That said, backlinks will increase the domain authority of your website and the page authority of various resources that you link within your guest stories whenever possible and applicable.
Guest posting is a successful strategy utilized by plenty of successful entrepreneurs, digital publishers, marketers over the past years.
Brian Dean has been notorious in coming up with genuine strategies for building links back to your website. His definitive guide to guest posting is a great go-to resource:
Conducting regular outreach and providing invaluable content for your readers and those of the outlets you’re promoting yourself on is key. Consider focusing on other forms of content like infographics that may get additional exposure or cross-promoting products which would allow you to grow your email list and utilize it for all sorts of promotions, upsells, and general brand awareness.
D. Direct traffic
Direct traffic refers to visitors who type in the domain name of your website in their address bars. For starting websites, that’s usually you and your friends – but later on, passionate fans and advocates of your writing would likely go straight to your website without having to look for it online.
In a nutshell, building a successful business venture out of your digital publication revolves around growing its traffic and customer base and implementing monetization strategies suitable to the model and the customer market.
- Research your audience properly, define your buyer personas, and see what your competitors do.
- Find out a model that’s unique yet still valuable, and start producing content on a regular basis.
- Think about SEO – don’t robotize your content, utilize tools such as BuzzSumo, SEMrush or Ahrefs in order to see what goes viral and what keywords generate a higher volume of traffic and hits.
- Build outstanding content – ultimate guides, industry reports, whitepapers, large How to or “Step by step” walk-throughs. Talk to prospects first, browse social media groups and find out what are the common problems that clients deal with in the field. Then write the cheat sheet and distribute it across the web.
- Start pitching other publications and magazines and publish some outstanding guest posts there as well. Don’t forget to share it across your social media channels and other social directories.
- Keep an eye on monetization opportunities along the way. Try to keep your traffic growing at all times, and convert some of it to your email list with some freebies as an incentive.
- Keep in touch with other industry leaders and organizations – or even content creators- that you can collaborate with. Could be a partnership for traffic share, or a business deal.
- Offer your consulting services in the meantime. Keep in mind that working with different clients will expand your horizons by building expertise in different markets which you can translate to actionable advice as well.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
The Bottom Line
A revenue model should be planned in advance, but it should not be the sole reason you should start your digital publication or publishing content online.
Nobody has the time to educate for free if they are unemployed. Free advice comes as a byproduct of a successful business run by the brand. Which is why you have to be truly committed to helping and educating your prospects and giving them the best content and deals possible.
The more determined and persistent you are, the larger your audience will be and it will reveal different revenue models as you grow.
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