3 Ways Publications Can Maximize Revenue While Staying Ad-Free

Innovative content platforms are diversifying income streams to spark conversation and support freedom of speech.

learn more about Simonetta Lein

By Simonetta Lein

SEAN GLADWELL | Getty Images

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's fascinating to see how publications are evolving in ways to maximize their revenue while prioritizing a clear, dignified and captivating ad-free experience for their readers. No one wants to look like a sellout in 2020. The internet provides millions of opportunities that can help media companies to better connect with the masses, and readers are gravitating towards websites that include them in the experience. Over the years, I've learned that you can't talk at your audience. You have to ignite conversations.

It's hopeful to see platforms that support freedom of speech and let individuals share their first-hand experiences, anonymously. When I started The Wishwall, it gave users a platform that valued freedom of expression and lent voice to the voiceless and marginalized. We generated revenue through fundraisers for social causes and made wishes come true.

I recently spoke to the founder of The Doe, Milan Kordestani, who unpacked how his team strategically diversified revenue streams to stop chasing ad money. Milan shared, "The Doe allows users to post first-hand experiences and unfiltered content anonymously, promoting freedom of speech and civil discourse and fostering thought-provoking conversations. Knowing that quick-fix forms of revenue streams were not a good fit for the platform, The Doe opted against traditional paywalls and pay-per-click ads."

I found it interesting that the publication aimed to harness the power of merchandise, customized subscription models and supports freedom of speech via user-generated content. As we look to the future of digital media, here are three ways online publications can maximize revenue while staying ad-free.

Related: 5 Ways Brands Can Reinvent Their Digital Marketing Strategy


By fostering a connection with the readers, online-content platforms can increase brand awareness and leverage their audience by giving them something to wear, gift or take with them. The merchandise takes the conversation from the online screen to real-life, offline, and ignites discourse wherever the readers might be.

I like that The Doe is harnessing the power of merchandise by offering items readers can integrate into their own lives to tell a story. The platform has a critical mission to change the face of online narratives and connects a high number of consistent readers who are invested in that goal. The readers bond with its content on a personal level, while each piece of the merchandise acts as a conversation starter for its monthly themes (the first one being Love).

In my opinion, a solid merchandising strategy turns digital publications into a full-scale brand while generating revenue from every single piece sold.

Pay-What-You-Can Subscription

Today readers come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and making a one-size-fits-all subscription model seems ineffective. Instead of paywalls, The Doe, for instance, decided to put the power of subscriptions in the readers' hands. As the online-content platform increased in popularity, its readers united on topics, ideas, motivation and experiences. They discovered they had an audience united in thought and not demographics.

Another fine example is Vice, which opted to forgo paywalls and instead generate content ranging from TV shows to podcasts to Facebook videos and even Snapchat shows. They knew early on that audiences were looking for exciting and inspiring content and were willing to pay for it in ways they felt appropriate.

Websites that have experimented with pay-what-you-can or -want models have found an increase in sustainable revenue because they aren't capping their worth or locking out subscribers by price. The model that The Doe follows is innovative, as it understands that revenue can be achieved in tailored ways.

Today, audiences prefer flexible, subscription-based models as opposed to fixed paywalls.

User-Generated Content

Readers are aligning themselves with publications that offer raw, first-hand accounts of topics that matter. There is massive potential for online content platforms to monetize such audiences without inhibiting user experience with ads.

Original stories make for great reads and act as magnets to attract new subscribers. While generic articles around the same topics are available on various websites, unique content and narratives lend exclusivity to publications and help increase revenue via subscriptions.

Related: 11 Entrepreneurs Who've Defied the Odds

All of this underscores my strong sense that modern audiences are leaning toward first-person stories that reveal honest experiences without implicit bias. It will continue to be interesting to monitor how publications expand their horizons to render an ad-free user experience that still delivers valuable content.

Simonetta Lein

Millennial Entrepreneur, Fashion Influencer, Activist

Simonetta Lein is an author, millennial entrepreneur, influencer and activist founder of the Wishwall Foundation www.thewishwallfoundation.org

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

The Dark Side of Pay Transparency — And What to Do If You Find Out You're Being Underpaid
Thinking of a Career Change? Here Are 4 Steps You Can Take to Get There.
A Founder Who Bootstrapped Her Jewelry Business With Just $1,000 Now Sees 7-Figure Revenue Because She Knew Something About Her Customers Nobody Else Did
Everything You Need to Know About Franchise Law

What Is a Brand Personality? Here's How to Develop One.

Connect with your audience on a deeper level by giving and cultivating your brand a personality. Read here how to do so.

Starting a Business

How To Sell on Etsy in 2023: A Comprehensive Guide

Want to start selling your handmade goods online? This article outlines how to start and grow your business using Etsy.

Business Ideas

55 Small Business Ideas To Start Right Now

To start one of these home-based businesses, you don't need a lot of funding -- just energy, passion and the drive to succeed.

Starting a Business

How to Craft the Best Benefits Package for a Global Workforce

Attract top talent from across the globe with a benefits package that speaks to anyone, anywhere.

Business News

'Crying Northwestern Kid' Turned His Viral Fan Moment Into a Successful Harvard Admissions Essay. He Says the Experience Taught Him About Empathy.

Six years ago, Phillips was watching No. 8 Northwestern take on No. 1 Gonzaga during March Madness when he became a meme.