Leveraging audio to drive subscriptions and memberships

By Regan Kerr

The coronavirus pandemic has forced news organisations to reconsider many of their strategies, both because of the economic pressures facing newsrooms and that audiences have been stuck indoors during lockdown.

In response, reader revenue, in the form of subscriptions and memberships, have been important for keeping many newsrooms going. And despite fears that lockdown would wreck typically-commuter mediums like podcasts, broadcasters reported strong returns from their shows.

These two ideas were fused at our Newsrewired conference last week (3 December 2020), discussing some of the ways that news organisations are leveraging audio as a way to drive subscriptions and memberships.

Diversifying revenue streams

Slate is one of the veteran digital media companies well known for its podcasts. It started in 2006 with four or five shows, and has now grown to 25 live shows at this moment in time.

Since launching its membership, Slate Plus, in 2014, between 70 to 80 per cent of signs ups were because of bonus content for its popular shows. The membership also provides ad-free versions of the shows as well as other perks.

David Stern, vice president of product and business development, Slate, says that the ad-free incentive, achieved through dynamic ad insertion technology, was an easy offer to maintain throughout the pandemic, requiring almost no addition work.

“I think the way we approached it was sort of like: ‘What can we offer that would be motivating for prospective members to join? But would not generate a bunch of extra work for us’, given the uncertain return and the fact that teams are already spread very thin.”

Slate gains most of its bonus content simply by hosts spending an extra 15 minutes with guest interviewees. For more highly produced shows it will only put out a smaller piece of a larger interview out for free.

To further diversify its revenue streams via audio, Slate also developed its own software platform Supporting Cast last year, to enable other podcasters and publishers to sell access to premium podcasts.

To date, Stern says Slate has 40,000 members dedicated solely to podcasts, representing around 2 per cent of its total podcast audience and roughly $2m in annual revenue.

In March this year, Slate implemented a metered paywall which, Stern says, has only increased audience feedback citing podcasts as their main reason for signing up.

Breaking the podcast market

The situation could not be more contrasting for Frontier Myanmar, a print and online news magazine based – clue is in the name – in Myanmar.

Sonny Swe, CEO of Black Knight Media, (which runs Frontier Myanmar), explains that news organisation was the first to break into the podcasting market in the country.

He spoke of how many people within the country have struggled to come to grasps with the latest developments with technology, facing obstacles involving infrastructure and consumer knowledge.

“In Myanmar, when it comes to technology, it is way behind. For instance, we have our internet widely used [but] with a very narrow bandwidth,” he says.

“In 2013, international telephone companies came to invest in Myanmar, and everybody’s bandwidth has widened, so we have been experiencing the challenges from technology to the traditional publishing side.”

Frontier Myanmar started podcasting in 2018, which to date publishes approximately 80 per cent of episodes in Burmese, the national language, and 20 per cent in English.

Swe says that in Myanmar, Facebook is massive. It is considered pretty much the internet itself. As such, it has a separate page for its podcast Doh Athan (Our Voice) where it posts teasers to try and build habits with its audience. It also pays to boost those posts.

The page has around 35,000 followers. Swe says that in the last month, they have managed to reach half a million people and received 145,000 engagements on the platform.

With a tiered membership on the website, the plan is to drive listeners to support its independent journalism. This is important in a country with significant press freedom concerns. Myanmar ranks 139th out of 178 on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

“Podcasts are the new thing in Myanmar,” Swe says. “On our publication side, we see the growth that podcast audiences are coming on to the [website].

“We haven’t been able to make [much] money yet, but I see the great potential that is happening. That’s our future because younger audiences are consuming news from podcasts. It’s so great to see.”

Encouraging new generations

Podcast editor at The TelegraphTheodora Louloudis agreed that podcasts can be a powerful way to appeal to younger audience.

Since 2018, The Telegraph has been a subscriber-first company, offering with a mixture of free and premium content. The vast majority of podcasts are not behind its paywall, but sometimes, bonus content is put behind it to increase value proposition for subscribers.

“We see our podcasts as a window shop into journalism and journalists,” she says.

“We see our audio as both a subscription driver and as a very valuable tool for growth amongst people who might not be subscribers.”

It also runs twice-daily audio briefings both on WhatsApp and smart speakers. Louloudis was first hired as a journalist to work on smart speakers, but says uptake on the devices has been slow. As such, audio content is currently only being reused for smart speakers, and not created for them.

The podcasts, however, are the big attraction. They have experienced year-on-year growth of 110 per cent from 2019. It runs four weekly shows, in addition limited run shows and documentary series. This year, it even managed to pull together its ‘coronavirus podcast’ in three days from initial concept to first episode.

“We really enjoy the idea of lifting our journalists off the page and bringing journalism to life – literally giving them a voice,” says Louloudis.

“The best way to drive subscriptions is to make them feel personal and podcasts do that very well.”

To watch Newsrewired on-demand, register here

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