Podcasts: Creating habits that lead to subscriptions

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States


I’m obsessed with The Daily, the breakout podcast hosted by New York Times journalist Michael Barbaro. I taught Alexa that skill. I get the Friday newsletter. Michael’s voice soothes me at a time when the news usually makes me want to put a large pillow over my face. The Daily debuted two years ago, but I didn’t discover it until editing the INMA strategic report “Audio Opportunities for News Media” earlier this year. The 20-minute audio news gem now reaches 2 million daily listeners.

Along the way of last week’s World Congress of News Media in New York — during the two-day study tour, full day of Wednesday seminars, and two days of high-level conference presentations — much was shared by news brands about podcasts that I hadn’t previously heard. I learned about off-the-chart completion rates, unprecedented smart speaker adaption, and the calculated habit these brands are banking on for future reader revenue.

I also learned The New York Times will debut a new TV series, The Weekly, based on its success with The Daily. Be still my beating journalist’s heart. 

Independent podcast publisher Wondery, known for Dirty John and Dr. Death, shared how-to advice with the INMA audience.
Independent podcast publisher Wondery, known for Dirty John and Dr. Death, shared how-to advice with the INMA audience.

Like everyone else in the standing-room-only auditorium at TheTimesCenter on the last day of the World Congress, I hung on every word spoken by Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times. I’ve been to a lot of these. And trust me when I say it’s rare to see such a rapt audience on day five. But Baquet is that rare subject and his stories — from his childhood in New Orleans to a phone call from President Trump — defy you to look at your Twitter account while he’s speaking.

“I think that it is a very different newsroom,” he told INMA delegates. “We take risks. We screw up. We try stuff. But I think the boldest things we’ve done are to openly embrace our audience, to openly move away from just writing traditional news stories, to openly embrace having a television show, a podcast, and to say: ‘We can tell stories many different ways. Let’s try it.’”

It’s that experimental can-do attitude that can stumble upon success like The Daily. In our Wednesday day of seminars, those attending the Mobile Storytelling session heard from Tyson Evans, senior editor and director of strategy at The New York Times: “Readers’ habits are changing. Readers are actually spending more time with media these days. It’s just different types of media. It’s podcasts. It’s Snapchats. It’s apps. It’s just not so much traditional media formats.”

It’s also a path toward digital subscriptions. This daily or weekly habit these podcasts are creating is gold down the road of reader revenue.

I’m not alone. And neither is The New York Times.

“Everyone sees this as the next platform that they need to be on and need to own,” Jeremy Mims, head of strategy at SpokenLayer, told study tour participants at the beginning of World Congress week. Mims reports there are almost 118 million smart speaker devices in the United States. While the business model now generally is centered around sponsorship or advertising, that will move into an audience subscription or donation model in time, Mims said.

Aftenposten is already working the audience angle. The Finnish news brand is a first-place winner in our Global Media Awards in the category of the best launch of a brand or product to create an audience segment. Aftenposten launched Forklart (“Explained”), a news story told by journalists each weekday. It’s promise: “Make the listener smarter without wasting their time.”

Aftenposten launched Forklart in September 2018.
Aftenposten launched Forklart in September 2018.

Three months after its September 2018 debut, Forklart had a daily audience of 35,000 (it’s original goal was 10,000):

  • 70% of listeners are under the age of 35.
  • 48% are female; 52% are male.
  • 90% listen to the entire episode.
  • Weekly listening time equals 40,000 hours.

As Aftenposten explained in its award entry: “Audio allows us to be present in more user situations during the day: In the shower, while driving a car, or while exercising. It is also the perfect way to create daily habits among our subscribers.”

Podcast listeners are disproportionately affluent and young adult. And these people engage deeply (I get that, although I’m not so young) with 80% of podcasts consumed beginning to end.

Did you take that in? Beginning. To. End. I hesitate to wonder the last time I finished an actual article of that length. And I’m kind of a news geek.

I thought this advice about launching a podcast — from Wondery, an independent podcast publisher known for Dirty John and Dr. Death — was noteworthy. Hernan Lopez, founder and CEO, offered these tips:

  • A firm launch date: “I know it’s not typically done in the world of news media, particularly when you’re working on a long-form story. In the podcast world you need a firm launch date.”
  • Less is more: “Many companies that try to get into the podcast space know correctly that many podcasts have very few listeners. So they decide that the right way to build an audience is to launch tons of podcasts to launch all at the same time.”
  • Voice matters: “All of the most successful podcasts that we’ve done have been done by print reporters.”
  • Marketing matters a lot: “For Dirty John and every podcast since, we’ve designed a campaign that looks like a movie campaign, with a tagline.”

Here are the podcast initiatives I heard about during the week:

The Economist: The Intelligence targets an American audience with a global perspective. The goal, of course, is to build that audience habit, Marguerite Howell, co-editor at The Economist Radio told INMA delebates: “We’re looking at this as a longer user journey to get people engaged with our brand and eventually start subscribing.”

Politico: Dave Shaw, executive producer at Politico Audio, said the competition in the podcast space since 2016 is tenfold. The trick, he told INMA, is to determine your unfair advantage, which lies at the intersection of your best content, the audience’s favourite content, and content sponsors want to pay to be part of. Politico produced a series of four editorial episodes in-house for a brand partner. Engagement rates were in line with Politico’s pure editorial content podcasts: “We told people it was coming and they went with us because they trust us,” he said. “That piece of trust is important, maybe the most important part.”

Gatehouse has made it a priority to audio enable its newsrooms.
Gatehouse has made it a priority to audio enable its newsrooms.

Gatehouse Media: “Smart speakers are being adapted faster than the iPhone was,” Jeff Moriarty, senior vice president/digital at Gatehouse Media, shared at the Brainsnacks Session on Wednesday. “They are being adopted and getting penetration faster than television and radio. It’s with this in mind that we’re thinking about audio. One of the keys has been to audio enable our newsroom. We have three such spaces, some are former closets or conference rooms. We’re getting our newsrooms enabled to create audio.” 

Gatehouse features 24-hour streaming content, a pop-up stream, podcasts, and radio station that will be live for a week or two around an event. It is now experimenting with audio atoms, which can be dropped into a podcast or subscribed to. Moriarty’s audio news feed, for example, has information about U.S. news, U.K. news, and car seats (because he has a young child). “People will probably configure these things,” he said. But at the end of day, you want to get in your car and say, ‘Tell me the news’ and have it be things you’re interested in.”

Digiday: Shareen Pathak, Digiday’s managing director of editorial products, explained during our study tour that Digiday spent US$300 on equipment to experiment with a podcast. That experiment has grown to five weekly offerings produced in an in-house studio space and Digiday+, a subscription offered at US$395 annually. Experimentation is at the heart of Digiday, which Pathak described to study tour participants as a “bootstrap company.”

In his key takeaways ending the Congress, INMA Executive Editor/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson reminded the audience that audio experts heard throughout the week advised news brands to invest today for an audience pay-off 12 to 18 months from now: “As of May 2019, podcasts are being used for top of the funnel engagement,” he said. “I’m not seeing too many examples of podcasts being behind a paygate or a paywall.” 

I firmly believe it’s only a matter of time. And habit.

About Dawn McMullan

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