Welcome to the latest installment in our series on revenue sources for non-profit social media projects. Today, I'm looking at what many non-profits first think of (and often, recoil at) when it comes to earning money online: advertising.

If your site attracts a lot of visitors — or even a niche community of visitors that advertisers want to reach — you can place advertising on your site to generate revenue. There are three types of advertising to consider:

  1. An ad service. Ad services handle all the work of finding advertisers, and place ads onto your site based on your content or keywords. In return, they take a (usually large) percentage of ad revenue. The most widely-used service is Google Adsense, which places advertising on your site based on keywords; this means you may have some ads appear on your site that don't fit with your message (for example, a web page about endangered fish may end up displaying ads for fish recipes) but you can veto ads as you identify problems. Other services focus on building specific communities of content based on quality; for example, Federated Media is an ad network for high-traffic bloggers. Some ad services place plaintext ads; others place images; Google itself gives the option of text or images.
  2. Your own ad system. If you want more control over the ads that appear on your site, you can sell ad space yourself. You can sell ads on a "per impression" (advertisers pay for how many times their ads get shown) or a "per click" (advertisers pay for how many times people actually click through to their ads) basis. You can sell ads that show up anywhere or everywhere on your site ("run of site" advertising) or you can sell ads on specific pages (for example, a youth-oriented brand may want to place ads specifically on your youth services page). You can place multiple ads on a single page, and you can charge higher rates for more prominent pages or spaces — for example, the top banner ad on your home page will likely command the highest price on your site. Selling your own ads means you can keep all the revenue you generate, but be aware of both cost of sales (you'll need someone to sell those ads) and technical costs (for payment processing and setting up a system for placing your ads).
  3. Sponsorships. As a non-profit organization, you may prefer advertiser "sponsorship" to traditional advertising. A sponsor (or set of sponsors) typically supports the entire site, though it is also possible to have specific sponsors support specific programs or areas of the site, particularly if they are highly specialized or resource-intensive. You could have one organization as the supporting sponsor of your main site, and another organization as the sponsor of an online community for a specific group of users (e.g. a community of young mothers). Sponsors will typically be credited as the sponsor of a site with a (potentially quite prominent) display of their name, logo, and possibly a tag line, but rarely place a full message on the site as they would with an ad (although in some cases sponsorship could include advertising). Sponsorship can feel less commercialized than an ad (which some organizations feel uncomfortable placing on their sites) and may have tax advantages for the sponsor, compared with advertising.

Advertising is one of the most obvious ways for a non-profit to earn revenue from its web presence — and if you use a service like Adsense, one of the easiest ways, too. But many non-profits are wisely cautious about placing ads on their site. Typical concerns include:

  • possible conflict with non-profit tax status
  • appearance of being overly commercialized
  • driving traffic away from the non-profit's own site
  • introducing off-message ads or content

Before you decide whether advertising is the right fit for you, consider:

  • How much revenue do you stand to earn? If you a have a low-traffic site, the upside of advertising is limited.
  • How will ads affect the perception of your site and organization? Ads feel particularly inappropriate on sites with a deeply personal or difficult message. Imagine how you'd feel if you saw an ad on a campaign page about Darfur.
  • What form of advertising would earn the most revenue? Consider whether to go with "per click" ads (which pay only if your visitors follow the links) or "per impression" ads (which pay simply for appearing).
  • How can you test advertising options? Ads aren't all or nothing. Consider placing ads on a few pages on your site, and asking for feedback before you proceed.
  • How will advertising affect other possibilities for revenue generation? Be sure to look at the other options we cover in this series. It might be that an option like premium service would yield more income — and your premium service could be an ad-free version.

Resources to help you learn more:

Using Google Adsense to generate income for your church or non-profit organization

A look at some Adsense alternatives