Indie Advertising 101: Tips for a Strong Ad Revenue Strategy

The Indie Ads team shares insights on some advertising basics.
Insights from the Indie Ads team on building a strong advertising revenue stream.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

At The Discourse, we deliver news after carefully listening to the communities we serve. And when we ask readers what they want from local journalism, we often hear what they don’t want: news cluttered with ads. So as a journalist and editor with this independent, reader-funded news outlet, I approached newsletter advertising with a bit of healthy skepticism.

After a few years of hosting ad spots in our weekly newsletters, I have yet to receive a single piece of negative feedback. Why? I suspect because they’re easy to read and values-aligned. 

To help demystify the dynamic world of ad revenue, I spoke with Allison Mcllmoyl, Indiegraf’s senior manager of development and sponsorship, and Sponsorship Manager Ramona Wildeman, who together make up the Indie Ads team. 

Here are their top tips for developing a steady stream of ad revenue:

#1: Set realistic goals

To a certain extent, “the sky is the limit” with reader revenue, since it’s based on the size of the target audience, says Allison McIlmoyl. Ads, on the other hand, are capped by your inventory, or how much and what you publish. 

To get a sense for how much ad revenue is possible, the Indie Ads team conducts an ad audit for every outlet. “Part of that audit is looking at the product, the size of the newsletter audience and other traction metrics,” says Allison. “How many page views is their website getting? What’s the size of their social accounts? How often are they publishing? What kind of sponsorship opportunities are they willing to work with? Once we have all of that, we move on to revenue projections.”

Publishers who have a daily newsletter product will likely have a greater chance of success, says Allison. “We’ve definitely noticed that publications that have that higher publishing frequency seem to do better — or they start selling out faster — than a once or twice a week publication.”

The Indie Ads team also talks to publishers to understand what kind of revenue they need to bring in and what ad products they might be interested in selling. “So then we say, okay, based on your audience size, these different placements and this frequency of publishing, you can make between A and B gross. And then we give them an idea of what that net would be after Indiegraf’s revenue share,” explains Allison. 

Keeping your inventory (and the size of your audience) in mind while setting your advertising revenue goals will help you stay grounded on reality, which will in turn maximize the efforts and resources you put into your sales process.

#2: Think beyond your newsletter

To boost inventory and provide more options to potential advertisers, the Indie Ads team suggests publishers remain open to a variety of advertising products. 

This allows publishers to tailor packages based on the needs of potential clients and sponsors. Ad products can include programmatic ads, direct sale display ads and premium event listings.

Editorial sponsorship agreements — in which sponsors fund journalism surrounding a topic valued by the organization — can also provide customers with a way to make an impact. 

#3: Give yourself time

“It takes a while to start generating advertising income,” says Allison. Even with established publishers, “It can take one to three months to even start bringing any money in, and it can take a year to 14 months to start regularly selling up the majority of your inventory.”

That’s largely because of the level of education involved, especially for newer outlets. “You need to tell people who you are, why you’re amazing, and why there’s value in advertising with you,” says Allison. “And that’s hard to do for the first little bit, you get a lot of crickets.”

#4: Build your sales assets 

A key tool for speeding up the education process is a one- or two-page media kit. This should include some relevant metrics (subscribers, newsletter open rates and clicks), specific value propositions (like reaching an engaged local audience) and testimonials from early adopters.

Allison suggests publishers have a media kit available on their website to help boost inbound leads. Once you have a media kit to share with potential advertisers, you can build up your leads through calls to action in your newsletters. Social posts can also help.

Beyond the media kit, a strong advertising program requires sales assets like rate sheets and sponsorship agreements. “[It’s about] making it as easy as possible for people to see what you offer and why it’s important,” she adds.

#5: Establish repeat customers

Ramona Wildeman advises publishers to invest time in building repeat customers. “Advertising takes a lot of legwork and time… So if you can get a few people in on a regular basis, then you have it, they have that money coming in, and you can spend more time developing more leads.”

A good way to build up your repeat customers is to reach out to your warm leads first — that is, the people you have a preexisting relationship with. Having a preexistent relationship usually leads to a faster sales process, which is highly valuable in those first few months.

#6: Get dedicated support

“Independent publishers are really good at wearing a lot of different hats. They’re very flexible in their roles, but consistently the area where they feel least competent is sales,” says Allison. That’s where Indiegraf’s Indie Ads support comes in handy.

There are a wide range of possibilities with Indie Ads. Publishers who want to be in charge of their sales can sign on to the Indie Ads Basic Tier to receive coaching on how to build sales assets and everything they need to put a successful advertising program together. Those who wish to draw from the expertise of seasoned sales professionals, on the other hand, can join the Premium Tier and get hands-on help from a sales representative like Ramona, who has been working in sales for many years.

“It is a huge benefit for a publisher to have access to a person like Ramona, because she can take that work that is really unfamiliar to them and help them boost this revenue stream,” says Allison. 

Mark Talkington, founder and publisher of The Palm Springs Post — a Premium Tier partner — says having the extra time to work on editorial and other sources of revenue has proven helpful. “I have not had to myself go and knock on doors and visit businesses and pitch them ads. It’s all being done by them remotely,” he says, adding that Ramona is both “fair and tough.”

Through Indie Ads, publishers gain access to a wide variety of resources and templates to build media kits, rate sheets and sponsorship agreements. But they also receive direct coaching on the operations, the policy, the procedures and the actual sales process. “Our end goal is to make sure that they have an advertising program where all the actions are easily replicable,” says Allison.

Beyond that, publishers gain access to a community of journalist-entrepreneurs exploring the world of sales. “It’s nice for publishers to be able to come to us and say, ‘Oh, man, I just had the weirdest phone call.’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah, tell me about it.’ Because that happens all the time,” says Ramona.

“We’re pretty regularly kind of being cheerleaders for some of our publishers,” says Allison, who adds that publishers they’ve trained sometimes deliver updates on Slack when they’ve taken a chance and achieved success. “I love seeing that.”

We have spent the past few months building the foundation and knowledge base to make Indie Ads a scalable, value-driven product for Indiegraf long-term network publishers. If your publication would benefit from advertising support, get in touch! We can help you set up the ideal structure from the get-go.


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