Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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“Making sure that we are reaching new audiences”: How publishers are innovating with audio

TL;DR: Audio is evolving rapidly. Going beyond podcasts, publishers are experimenting with audio articles, live/social audio, flash briefings, and so on. FIPP’s Innovation in Media report rounds up the exciting innovations happening in this area with informative case studies and valuable insights.

80% of 246 media leaders from 52 countries say they will be putting more resources into podcasts and digital audio this year, according to Reuters Institute’s Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2022 report. 

“Growing consumption of digital audio has been a trend for a few years, driven by a combination of smartphones, better headphones, and investment in podcasts from platforms like Spotify, Google, and Amazon,” notes Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “But in the last year, we’ve seen the rapid development of a much wider range of digital formats such as audio articles, flash briefings, and audio messages, along with live formats such as social audio.”

The latest edition of FIPP’s annual Innovation in Media Report digs deep into how publishers around the world are innovating with the above forms of audio to attract and retain readers, and grow revenue. 

Along with the incredible expansion in podcasting all over the world, new innovations in format are proving that audio can address many aspects of the engagement funnel.

Innovation in Media Report 2022/23 World Report, FIPP

“Significant opportunity to capitalize”

While advertising is the main revenue stream for podcasts, there are growing opportunities for direct reader revenues, especially after Apple Podcasts and Spotify revealed their podcast subscription programs. 

Publishers like The New York Times, The Guardian, and Slate have been experimenting with subscriber/member-exclusive podcasts. But the vast majority of media companies did not venture into the area because of technological complexities. Now with Apple and Spotify supplying the technology, publishers can easily place podcasts behind paywalls. 

The service is chargeable with Apple taking a 30% cut of each first-year subscription and 15% for following years. Additionally, podcasters will be charged $19.99 per year for using the new premium tools. Spotify will not take a revenue sharing fee from publishers for the first two years. Subsequently, podcast producers would be charged a 5% fee to access the subscription tools. 

With the technical ability to offer subscription podcasts now significantly enhanced by Apple and Spotify’s plans, publishers have a significant opportunity to capitalize. We can expect to see paid podcasts go mainstream across the board as 2022 progresses, either as new initiatives by publishers or integrated into existing plans.

Innovation in Media Report 2022/23 World Report, FIPP

German publisher Die Zeit has paywalled its podcasts on Apple’s platform. Listeners can access them for 5.99 € a month. In the US, NPR announced that they would offer an ad free version of their podcasts to paying subscribers via Apple. “We continue to feel very strongly that the content we produced should be freely available,” said Joel Sucherman, VP, Audio Platform Strategy, NPR. “We continue to believe in the RSS standard and the open podcast economy. But we feel this is an opportunity for the super fans who really love particular shows to support them at the show level.”

“Very effective retention tool”

Converting text articles to audio is another strategy being favored by some publishers – they have realized that the format can play an important role in retaining audiences, according to the report. It’s not a new strategy – The Economist launched an audio edition of its weekly magazine in 2007. The current resurgence follows the larger trend of spoken words getting increasingly popular among audiences. The Spoken Word Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research published in November 2021, revealed that spoken word audio listening is up 40% in the past seven years, and 8% YoY. 

Our evidence suggests that the audio edition is a very effective retention tool; once you come to rely on it, you won’t unsubscribe.

Tom Standage, Deputy Editor, The Economist 

The Economist uses a voice professional to create its audio editions. Danish publisher Zetland has seen significant success in getting reporters to create audio versions of their stories. The New York Times bought Audm which uses professionals to do the same. But publishers also have the option of using AI solutions which are now capable of offering high-quality output. 

The Washington Post uses an AI solution called Polly to create audio versions of its articles. Earlier, the publisher used the built-in text-to-speech technology on iOS and Android devices to offer audio versions of its articles to readers. But Polly, according to Kat Downs Mulder, the publisher’s Chief Product Officer and Managing Editor, “is a better voice – it’s a smoother, more human-sounding voice. It still sounds like a mechanized voice, an automated voice. But I think it’s a bit smoother and more natural.” It has been received well by readers. Subscribers listening to audio articles on its apps were “engaged more than three times longer with our content,” she added.

WaPo “seems to have come up with a winning solution,” according to the FIPP report, considering that getting voice professionals or reporters to do the job can be very time-consuming. 

“We don’t want to become dependent on major listening platforms”

Bundling audio articles and podcasts is yet another strategy being used by publishers to grow revenue. German publisher Der Spiegel offers such a bundle. It includes an audio version of the weekly edition of the magazine, a daily news podcast, and a couple of other podcasts featuring work-life balance tips, covering nutrition and mindfulness, and topics for children and their parents. The bundle, Audio+ costs 14.99 € per month.

Dutch publishers NRC and De Correspondent, and The New York Times are taking this strategy further with dedicated apps that house all their audio products. While the Times is beta-testing its standalone audio app called New York Times Audio, NRC and De Correspondent have already launched theirs for the public. NRC’s app features external, as well as its own podcasts. De Correspondent’s podcasts remain available via third-party platforms such as Spotify and iTunes. 

The idea behind the app was to help their members control their “audio destiny,” according to De Correspondent. “With more audio stories, we don’t want to become dependent on major listening platforms like Spotify,” it announced during the launch of the app. “We’ve noticed they’re trying to make audio more and more exclusive by buying up big shows and putting them behind a paywall. We want our journalism to remain as inclusive as possible, so we’ve chosen to take our audio directly to you, the members who make it financially possible.”

“Another step on the ladder”

The live-audio frenzy sparked by the invite-only social audio app Clubhouse early on in the pandemic continues to thrive although the popularity of the platform that introduced it has waned. Other tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, announced their own versions of the live-audio experience. While Facebook announced recently that it’s pivoting away from this area to focus on Metaverse-related products, Twitter Spaces is getting popular among publishers.

The Financial Times has been using it since December 2021. The publisher gets around 300- 400 live listeners per “Space” on average. 3,000 to 5,000 watch the recordings afterwards. Big topics, like discussions around new Covid variants, can attract nearly 5x the average live numbers. “As always with social media platforms, it’s about building awareness of our journalists, content, and brand,” says Rachel Banning-Lover, Head of Social Media and Development, FT. 

“It’s another step on the ladder toward converting them into subscribers.”

Rachel Banning-Lover, Head of Social Media and Development, FT

The New Statesman has been using Twitter Spaces to do live deep dives into popular articles with a member of its social media team and a journalist. “We know we’ve got excellent content, it’s about making sure that we are reaching new audiences,” says Elise Johnson, Head of Audience, The New Statesman. “And at the moment, Twitter Spaces is one of the languages on Twitter that can convey our stories.”

There’s more to come in this space with Spotify and LinkedIn, and many other smaller companies having readied or planning products. Spotify’s Greenroom—a separate app at present—is reportedly going to be renamed Spotify Live and integrated into the main app. LinkedIn is testing a social audio experience in its app that would allow creators on its network to connect with their community.

The tech industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang calls it the ‘Goldilocks’ medium for the 2020s: 

“Text is not enough, and video is too much; social audio is just right.”

Jeremiah Owyang

The full report can be downloaded from FIPP:
Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report