How to Monetize an Owned Audience (Without Losing Trust)

How to Monetize an Owned Audience (Without Losing Trust)


There’s some risk to how our industry has been evangelizing the resurgence of owned media as a strategic marketing practice for B2B companies. We shout “every company is becoming a media company” from the rooftops, publish awesome short-form video content into the LinkedIn feed, and humblebrag about our growing list of subscribers.

The casual observer could mistake all of this effort as a brand campaign — unattributable to pipeline and fundamentally disconnected from growth.

However those who have been paying closer attention appreciate that owned media is the most efficient way that marketing can impact growth. So at the risk of frustrating the audience building purists out there, it’s critical that we talk about audience monetization in order to get buy-in at the CFO, CEO, or whoever-needs-to-be-convinced level.

But in all fairness, this topic is indeed sensitive.

At the very heart of audience building is this idea that people are either following you on rented channels or subscribing directly to your brand because they want to learn from you, not buy from you — at least not yet. If every moment of engagement across the audience lifecycle was followed by an SDR call or pitch to see a demo, you’re on the fast track to burning your database down to zero (not to mention developing a terrible reputation).

Said another way, after spending months (or years) using content and media to build trust with your audience, the wrong monetization strategy can erode trust even faster.

Where can we look for inspiration on how to do this the right way? You guessed it — let’s look to the consumer media industry and understand their approach.

Don’t Become a Media Company, Operate Like a Media Company

The mantra ’every company is becoming a media company’ is more polarizing than I had expected when we started using it back in October.

Most marketers have responded with a visceral reaction of support, believing that the changing winds within (and outside of) our industry have created the perfect storm for this popular refrain to get operationalized within the B2B marketing playbook. But a few marketers have voiced their skepticism. The common rebuttal is often a reminder of the difference in business models — that media companies monetize predominantly through advertising, unlike SaaS companies who sell software licenses.

Sorry, but… duh.

No one in their right mind would attempt to convince a B2B marketing org to ditch their products and services and make the pivot to becoming an actual media company. Naysayers are missing the bigger point. A more accurate mantra might be that every company is becoming like a media company, using similar tactics to build and monetize an owned audience, but selling software licenses instead of advertising.

We’ve spoken a lot about what those “build” tactics are:

So what monetization tactics can we learn from consumer media?

We need to start by appreciating that advertising is only one of many monetization channels for traditional media businesses. Increasingly, a greater percentage of revenue is derived from selling value-added services directly to the audience, including premium subscriptions (typically with exclusive content), courses and certifications, event attendance, and others.

Consumer media businesses use privileged audience engagement data in order to understand which cohorts of their audience should be targeted for monetization offers. They can’t afford NOT to be personalized with their outreach, or otherwise risk burning out a database that they worked so hard to build.

That’s the core premise of owned media — that the first-party audience engagement data that’s critical to monetization cannot be bought or rented, it can only be developed.

Audience Monetization Tactics for B2B Companies

Let’s apply this concept to the traditional B2B company. We’ll start with a broad assumption that you’ve been successful at building an owned audience of subscribers and have been driving engagement within subscribers through your content, media, and events.

How do we act on engagement data without compromising trust? Here are six tactics to consider.

  1. Create an Audience Engagement Score. The traditional MQL is no longer adequate. We need to dig deeper into the first-party data set that our audience has generated with our content in order to discern who is here to learn, and who may be in-market to buy. Leverage signals that aren’t tracked in the traditional lead scoring context — how did your audience member become a subscriber? What topics or formats do they consume the most? Did they comment or share, and if so, what was the sentiment of the post? Does attending an event have a higher correlation to purchase than listening to a podcast? As you look for patterns in the data, configure a health score at the individual and account level to track progress.

  2. Influence Engagement with Targeted Programs. Once you’ve found correlation between engagement and outcomes, those insights can be used to guide your content roadmap decisions. Is there correlation between higher engagement and certain topics? Create some more content on that topic! Do most audience members attend a live event or broadcast before taking a meeting? Host a monthly stream and invite the right members of your audience to attend.

  3. Align Content and Product Value Propositions. Product Marketing has an important role to play in owned media. Your product needs to be positioned as the best way to accelerate the methodologies you espouse in your content and thought leadership. Otherwise, you may find that you’ve built an audience of people who love your content and media, and yet have no intention to ever buy your products! One of the ways to hedge this risk is to promote some (read, not all) later stage content on your media property — things like buyer’s guides, customer stories, etc. You might choose to weigh engagement with those content pieces higher in the engagement scoring model you developed above.

  4. Enable SDRs/AEs as Consultants, Rather Than Sellers. The truth is that an owned media approach to GTM requires buy-in and close partnership with Sales. They need to embrace a value selling methodology that partners with prospects on transforming their business with your company as a strategic thought partner. That means SDR outreach to your highly engaged audience should be consultative, utilizing engagement data to provide added value beyond what content consumption can offer. Sometimes that results in a qualification call. Other times, we learn something valuable about the account that becomes helpful down the road. In either case, we establish a human contact and direct relationship that becomes a net positive to the business.

  5. Create Opportunities for Hand-Raisers. Extending an invitation for members of your audience to self-select into a commercial conversation is table stakes. This could take the form of an ad-unit on your owned property delivered to highly engaged audience cohorts, or a standing CTA at the footer of your exclusive newsletter. Whether static or dynamic, create an opportunity for audience members to learn more about your product. As audience members turn into prospects, make sure to ask how they heard about you, as there’s some truth to the self-reported attribution movement.

  6. Trust the Process. I’m speaking this one into a mirror as I write the words to you, but trust that owned media will pay off in time. There is commercial value to some of the engagement that can’t be tracked, or rather, is inferred from rented channels. I struggle with this concept specifically as I wrap my head around zero-click content, or this idea of promoting content in rented feeds with no CTA back to the owned property. The truth is that people are generally pretty smart — if they like the content you’re producing on social media, or are active subscribers of your brand, chances are they will know what you’re about and engage you directly in a commercial discussion when they’re ready to buy.

As you start executing an audience monetization strategy, it’s important to get a feel from your audience and solicit feedback along the way. The line between appropriate and inappropriate outreach is thin and constantly moving — be adaptable and willing to make changes when appropriate to serve the needs of both audience and company.

The effort is worth it.

Customers who are acquired through relational channels like owned media have a higher propensity to convert, renew, and advocate. You’ll be building more than just an audience, but the most efficient channel for creating customers for life.

If not, you may end up actually building a media company — and your board won’t be too happy with me.


Anthony Kennada | About the Author

Founder and CEO, AudiencePlus

Prior to founding AudiencePlus, Anthony served as the CMO of incredible companies like Hopin and Front. He was the founding CMO of Gainsight where he and his team are credited with creating the Customer Success category -- a novel business imperative, profession and software category that helps subscription companies grow sustainably by becoming customer obsessed. By focusing on human first community building, content marketing, live events and creative activations, they developed a new playbook for B2B marketing that built the Gainsight brand and fueled the company’s growth from $0 to $100M+ ARR, and eventual acquisition by Vista Equity at a $1.1B valuation. You can follow him here.


How to Monetize an Owned Audience (Without Losing Trust)

At the risk of frustrating the audience building purists out there, it's critical that we talk about audience monetization in order to get buy-in at the CFO, CEO, or whoever-needs-to-be-convinced level.

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