Think Outside the (Advertising) Box

By on June 17, 2014

This is one of a series of blog posts from the third ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications to apply for this year’s fellowship closed on June 6. Fellow Ashley Lohmann is a media entrepreneur and founder/director of Beyond the Bombs.

When I launched Beyond the Bombs, my multimedia platform showcasing the untold stories of the Middle East and North Africa, I had prior professional experience in the region, as well as with the media. Yet, as the platform grew, I discovered that I was missing an important skill set: business experience.

If I hoped to expand the platform further, I needed to know how to secure funding and generate revenue. I began seeking advice from anyone I could — journalists, entrepreneurs, bloggers, investors. I quickly learned about funding resources for journalists and media start-ups, but when the conversation turned to revenue generation, the advice became less clear cut.

If you are working on a media project or start-up, here are a few places to start your search for fellowships and funding: Knight Foundation, Matter., International Women’s Media Foundation, UNITY Journalists for Diversity, and International Reporting Project. Also, seek out foundations and accelerators related to the issue your project or venture addresses.

Everyone, from early-stage start-ups to media giants, is grappling with the challenge of making digital media profitable. Advertising, subscriptions, and content licensing are oft-mentioned revenue options but rarely seem sufficient. From my advice-seeking conversations, I distilled two main suggestions for generating revenue.

First, get creative with your advertising. Sidebar and banner ads can produce some income, but less conspicuous “native ads” are likely to be more effective. Native advertising—the digital version of the print advertorial—follows the form and function of the surrounding user experience. Think Twitter’s promoted tweets, Google’s sponsored search results, or Facebook’s suggested posts.

Buzzfeed, in particular, has been touted for its success in producing engaging and sharable native ads. Take a look at their list of “The 20 Coolest Hybrid Animals,” a salute to the Toyota Prius. Who wouldn’t want to share pictures of an adorable donkra (donkey/zebra) or a massive liger (lion/tiger)?

Second, establish multiple revenue channels. That might mean employing some combination of the revenue-generating staples—advertising, subscriptions, and content licensing. However, many of the start-ups with which I spoke are also tapping into their strengths and offering services to individuals or organizations outside of the media industry.

For example, Visualizing Impact (VI) produces creative and compelling data visualization tools about pressing social issues. In addition to designing their own projects to publish on their website, VI creates data visualizations for external clients. Their innovative approach to storytelling gives them a market advantage.

Knooz Room, which produces interactive stories about the Middle East, follows a similar model. Organizations that support Knooz Room’s mission can sponsor a story on a specific issue about which they want to build awareness. Knooz Room’s “Borders” series about life along geopolitical fault lines was produced with the financial support of the human rights-promoting Heinrich Boll Foundation.

Certainly, no one has found the silver bullet. However, thinking outside the (advertising) box can help move your project toward financial sustainability.

Fellow Ashley Lohmann is a media entrepreneur, and founder/director of Beyond the Bombs. Since graduating from Stanford University, she has held positions as a Middle Eastern security analyst in Washington, DC and an editor and writer for an online publication in Los Angeles. She has also studied and worked in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey.