Will an ad network work for your news website? Or are you just going to have to sell your own ads?

One of the toughest challenges that new journalism entrepreneurs face is: Do I have to sell my own ads?

The journalism industry’s traditional ethical “wall” dividing advertising and editorial has left some journalists so frightened by the idea of selling to potential advertisers that they choose not even to try launching their own news websites. Few of us wish to comprise our journalistic integrity by having to sell ads.

But selling ads shouldn’t comprise your integrity – it’s selling your editorial which does that. If potential customers think that they’re getting both for the price of one – well, you’ll just have to set them straight, won’t you? (Check out our series on selling ads ethically here and here and here for help.)

If you’re worried what your fellow journalists will think, well, don’t. Here’s my new ethical rule: Journalists who’ve found an active source of customer income (from ads, subscriptions, grants, contributions or whatever) in the post-mainstream-media world don’t have to listen to complaints from those who haven’t.

Ethical concerns now put aside, new publishers face a more compelling concern in selling ads: Time.

The checklist a start-up news publisher confronts is daunting. Everything that a news entrepreneur can off-load onto someone else frees time for other important tasks.

In an ideal situation, a news entrepreneur would be able to outsource her ad sales to a network, such as Google’s AdSense. But ad networks don’t work for every website.

The division between sites which make significant amounts of money from ad networks and those which do not is not random. Several identifiable characteristics determine whether you’ll be one of those who can leave the ads to an outside service, or if you’ll be among those publishers who’ll just have to reserve time each day for ad sales.

Your target geography

The broader your market, the more likely an ad network will be able to find advertisers that will attract enough of your readers to make you a significant amount of money. For that reason, ad networks work best in serving websites targeted at a national or international audience.

If you’re covering a local community, it’s far less likely that you’ll find a network selling directly into your market (and if you do, they’re your competition). Larger, national networks might pick up some of your local advertisers, but odds are that you’ll be looking at a page filled with poorly targeted, irrelevant ads from outside your community if you stick with something such as AdSense for your neighborhood news website.

Do you have a topical niche?

If broad geography serves you well in working with ad networks, the opposite is true with the topical focus of a website’s coverage. A sharply defined single topic for your site attracts the most – and most lucrative – ads from a network.

By publishing a global website focused on a single topic, ad networks can identify a specific class of advertisers interested in reaching your readers and draw from a international marketplace of those advertisers to bid for space on your site. That offers you a collection of sharply focused ads, of high interest to your readers, which will elicit relatively high click and response rates.

With a general-interest site, ad targeting ends up all over place, making it harder for your network to place ads on a given page that will interest the readers of that page.

Put yourself in an advertiser’s position. If you want to sell the most widgets for each dollar you spend on ads, would you rather place your ad on “Wally’s Widget World” or “Wally’s Hometown Gazette”? Sure, you might find a few widget fans on the Gazette website, but you know they’re all over the Widget World website. So that’s where you’ll want to place your ad.

Whether an ad network allows for manual targeting such as this, or places ads through an automated process, the result is the same. Sites with a narrow topic focus get better, more relevant and more product ads than those without. That means more money for the niche publishers.

Do your potential advertisers employ an ad agency?

Think of 10 business you believe would be a good fit as advertisers on your website – ones trying to reach people in the community you’re covering and selling products related to that community’s interests.

Are these businesses likely to employ an ad agency to create and place their ads, or not?

If a business has contracted its advertising to an agency, it’s pointless for you to try to sell directly to that business. They’re simply going to refer you to their agency. And agencies don’t want to deal with hundreds of individual publishers in placing their ads. That’s the “pain” that ad networks evolved to alleviate. If your target advertisers place ads through agencies, you’re better served by outsourcing your ad service to the network or networks which those agencies deal with.

Don’t assume, though, that every large or lucrative business works with ad agencies. On our violin website, we’ve had little success with network ads because so many of the shops and makers in the classical music world are family-owned and operated. In that business, there are people selling multi-million dollar instruments… who design and place their own ads. So we have to sell directly.

Most journalists coming from a traditional newspaper or local broadcast background envision their new news website working in much the same way: covering a variety of general interest stories within a defined local geographic community. And that’s great. We need local coverage in our news media.

But the mix of local geography, general interest and (likely) smaller business advertisers is exactly the wrong mix of qualities for success with an established advertising network. If this is your editorial model, prepare yourself for the job of selling your own advertising.

If you really want to avoid ad sales and find financial success as an online publisher, you increase your chances for success by working instead to create a topical niche site with a national or global audience, appealing to big business advertisers who contract with major agencies.

And then, of course, you’ll also need to become an expert in SEO to create the sharply-targeted content that will maximize your return from these networked ads.

I’ve seen too many would-be online news publishers jump into creating a website without thinking first about from where the money will come. Wishing isn’t a business strategy. If you don’t believe that you can sell ads on your news website – or find someone who can – then you should rethink what type of site you want to create before you devote any more time to it.

And if you think you can avoid the challenge of selling ads for a local, general interest news website by going non-profit, allow me to inform you that going non-profit entails just as much work as (if not more than) selling ads. But that’s a topic for another post.

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If you’d like to explore the online news publication business in greater detail, with one-on-one coaching and instruction for your website, please apply for the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. It’s a free online and in-person instructional course, with the in-person camp happening in May in Los Angeles. We’ll have top business school faculty and online news publishers lined up to help you make your news website a success. The application deadline is Friday, January 14, 2011.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. It really is a tough situation. Local and unique content is definitely relevant, and needed. While ads pay the bills, that is a task best handled by sales people. Selling definitely takes time away from developing editorial content, which is what readers want.

    Ad revenue plays a vital role in the publishing ecosystem, even more so online. It keeps editorial content free which helps journalists by propagating their content across a broader audience through reposts, social media and search.

    The recent interest in local online advertising, explosive attention to local shopping (Groupon), location based services like foursquare, etc., give publishers a good opportunity. The need for local and relevant information will only increase.

    As a marketer, most pubs I have advertised with offer basic online ad sales in standard IAB formats. There isn’t a lot of geo or audience targeting, or some of the newer technologies, like retargeting. To be honest, analytics are marginal. So as an advertiser I get better results with ad services that offer these tools.


    One great free tool for publishers is WordPress, which not only makes it easy to edit and post quickly and effectively, but also aggregates in search channels really well, and helps drive traffic.

    Also, I believe that NFC enabled phones will help the publishing industry immensely. Readers will engage directly with print media through their smart phones and deliver media and information. For Publishers that could mean direct sales and transactions. The applications are staggering, and Google just introduced an NFC enabled phone, so adoption by the public of these devices should happen over the next 12-18 months. This new media stream will create a demand for more publishing content and advertisers.


  2. Good piece.

    Running an advertising-supported media site is a business.

    Anybody thinking of doing this needs to understand that the majority of the workload has nothing to do with journalism. It’s sales, production, billing, collecting, bookkeeping, paying bills — just like any other business.

    If you don’t like to talk to people, you shouldn’t be a reporter. If you don’t like selling and accounting and paperwork and worrying about whether you’ll still have a business next week, you shouldn’t be a publisher.

    None of this goes away if you’re a nonprofit. You’re just changing what you’re selling, to whom, and how.

    I know how tempting it is to look at a community that’s poorly served by journalism and imagine a glorious future in filling that void. But the first question needs to be: Is there a business here?

    Local media without strong, useful, meaningful local ads will fail every time. And local ads won’t happen without need and a mechanism to fill that need. So begin by understanding the market.

  3. says:

    I largely agree with all you’re saying here, I just want to emphasize:

    Your ad model should fit your content model. What I mean is, you need a unified strategy.

    Until you’re proven in the market place, at a minimum, you need to convey a message to readers and advertisers that your value proposition is one aimed at exclusively meeting their needs.

    That means, to me, if you’re covering a local community, you want to communicate: We care only about our local community. That means just as you don’t cover stories outside of the local community, you don’t accept advertising outside of that local community.

    That pretty much kills being part of an ad network, even something like Google AdWords.

    I can tell you from experience, pushing that consistent message across all aspects of your news business is exceptionally powerful.

    Part of establishing a brand is clearly identifying who you are and then constantly reinforcing that message. Don’t dilute that message by accepting ads just to get the money. Make sure those ads fit your overall message. Believe, the long-term benefits are worth any short-term monetary loss.

    Howard Owens
    Publisher, The Batavian

  4. says:

    I’d just briefly echo Howards comments re the importance of ads fitting snugly within your chosen community… Be it niche. Or local.

    Or both in the case of Alistair’s http://www.greenerleith.org

    Via Addiply he both sets his own ad rate on a bid model basis – 75p a month in this case – and has the right to refuse the wrong kind of advertiser that knocks on his door; ie no Walmart, but yes to the organic veg store at the corner of the block.

    Empowerment, not enfeeblement would I guess be the message.

    Best etc


  5. says:

    As I have said a million times, what Howard said.

    Don’t even PRETEND TO THINK a network can come close to giving you some kind of livable revenue, if you are doing local news. If it’s working somewhere, let me know. I haven’t seen/heard it yet.

    But also: DON’T GO IT ALONE. I cannot imagine dealing with the ad sales side of it. Not because I couldn’t or wouldn’t – but because I am working on content around the clock, around the calendar, even with lots of freelance help. If my co-publisher/husband weren’t dealing with that side of the business (and helping with content – taking photos, rushing to breaking news so I can ‘anchor’ coverage from the HQ desk), we wouldn’t have anywhere near this much content.

    There are and have been some ad-network efforts in this market, with local advertisers. They are supplementary at best.

    -Tracy @ West Seattle Blog (in our fourth year as a business, in the black, bootstrapped all the way)

  6. says:

    Al from @greenerleith here. We use addiply ads.

    They help – but we’re not a commercial operation and get most of our income from grants. We sell adverts so that our membership fees can be used for something else other than hosting.

    To my mind if we wanted to get more revenue out of advertising on our site we could either really push the addiply network, or we could sell our own ads direct. We’d probably do both. Either way – you’ve got to get out there and sell.

  7. says:

    Such a common problem that is totally unaddressed. Today I was having a conversation with a friend of mine facing the same problems… among others, which indirectly led me to this article. He mentioned an agency for publishers in place of ad networks. Had a lot of good things to say, I might be contacting them myself. focalpointnetwork.com So based on guidelines I have to disclose I might be working with them.